I am Art. (The True Story of an Emissary from Eternity).
...They are disappearing...
Just over a year old.
Trud [Labor], the newspaper whose name was constructed from solid, guileless letters. Next to the name, two insignias were pressed tightly together - the bulging orbs of the "specter of communism." The black color of the letter T was enticing. It seemed as if it would flake apart with the first quick nibble, like the chocolate glazing on a bar of ice cream. The hands hovered over it, aged, but not work-worn, with short, yellowed nails and a crooked forefinger. This finger, after a moment of indecision, jabbed at a spot that I longed to test with my teeth, and the confident voice of an honored teacher of the USSR asked, "Sasha, what letter is this?" I pulled the pacifier from my mouth. "Tee," and quickly put it back in place. "And this?" - the finger slid across the pot-bellied, one-legged Р[R], the jaunty У[U], and rested on the triangular, spike-footed Д [D]. I did not rule out that I could be pierced by it, and took a tiny step back, pulled out the pacifier and gazed to the side for some time, and then, almost as an afterthought, I quickly responded, "That's DEEEEEEE," and stamped off on my short little legs toward the entrance.
There would seem to be nothing particular about this episode. True, not many children know letters when they`re just past a year old, not many people remember themselves at that age, but in principle, this is nothing sensational. This is about something else: I have described only a close-up view, the core of my memories, but I recall, as well, the big picture.
Lilac. Remember Mandelstam:
The artist is portraying for us
The deep swoon of lilacs...
I don't know where Mandelstam saw this kind of "Turgenevian damsel," but in our yard, we had a solid amethyst madcap, which, in contrast, was clearly in a state of temporary insanity. This was the violet resistance to the shabby faded green trash cans, the mousy prints, and dirty-yellow Moskvitch – Uncle Kolya's car. Her bold purple was too spiffy, too young, too independent for a Soviet town, her massive tassels brazenly blinding to the eye. And the smell! No, this was more than resistance, this, it was a riot, sedition. Really, how could the air be so saturated in a country where everything was diluted: milk, beer, brains?
In short, this lilac was all about purple, and in order to pacify her audacity, the city had to be cunning. It situated a bench in the midst of this lush overgrowth on which it installed three calm, intelligent old ladies. They didn`t lecture the small fry noising and scampering past them, they did not ask strangers: "Who are you off to?" Rather, from morning to evening they carried out quiet, important, secret conversations. When neighbors approached, they would cease conversing; greetings would be exchanged, and a few polite phrases and not until the «interlopers» had walked into their entrance would they again commence their word-weaving, which nobody except for the fragrant feminine trouble-maker could hear.
And you know, in the end this secret coterie of grannies defeated the lilac. In their presence, she fell asleep: the concentration of color abated, the smell began to resemble spent toilet water, the limbs, like the head of a slumbering man, began to slump downwards, and the people who passed by to their standard five-storied buildings no longer paid her any attention at all.
And so it was: the bench, the grannies, the lilac, the newspaper, I, reading the letters, and beyond the bench - people.
People? At the back of these three conspirators? Impossible! The bench was immersed in the bushes, that there was no place for a person to stand. There was no place, but they were there. A foursome. In front - a Japanese man in a yellow kimono. He wasn't looking at me, wasn't watching after me, he was peering at me unwaveringly with a look that, though not heavy, explained nothing at all.
A "comrade" crowded in behind him. In appearance, he was a typical Soviet bureaucrat. The large features of the face and thin, almost womanish lips radiated Polish arrogance and open hostility. Sitting close by, on a chair with a high carved back a restless, almost twisted old man, strikingly reminiscent of a giant seahorse. His spine was imprisoned under a question mark, and his long, fleshy nose seemed to race ahead not only of his round, puffy face, but also of his thoughts. As if in waves, lines of sheets covered with writing were crushed in his rapid, geriatric scratchings and were piled on his knees. The pleated collar around his neck resembled a mill stone, and his head was crowned with a hugantic black wig that curled down to his shoulders. The fourth was standing behind all the others as if perched on some invisible pedestal. Young, curly-headed, his face was framed by a powerful moustache on either side and bifurcated at either end by a goatee and big, wide-opened eyes, in which I saw sympathy, encouragement and support. But most of all, the intersection of our glances ignited some kind of metaphysical tumbler, and the space around it became engilded with weightless swirling pollen, gold with shining rays (or shining with golden rays, depending on how one looked at it) and multi-sized aureate splashes. My mother's voice stole me from this golden rapture. "Sasha, they're asking you what this letter is?"
Step. Knee. Pain. I somersaulted into the dark, cavity of the entrance, but did not set to climbing the concrete jaws of the staircase, and instead slipped behind the closed gate of the chipped, dirty blue door and pressed my eye to the chink.
The fledgling golden reverie matured into a gilt snowstorm that rapidly took over control. Golden specks swirled in the air and settled on the filthy face of the asphalt, in places forming drifts. The evening breeze tried to etch onto this golden-threaded plaid the semblance of drifting snow. The sun had briefly left, perhaps behind a cloud, perhaps in quest of a beer, but this did not matter. Everything was still suffused with light, exhaled like a volcano, and dazzled with sparkling flurries. Only the lilac did not throb with this golden fever. She calmly flourished her heavy clusters, and not a single shining flake dared to invade her private space.
However they boldly strode straight into the bush and disappeared in the huge colorful void. The bent old man, dragging behind him his carved chair, was the last to shove off. After he trudged into the lilac orifice, the golden avalanche – blizzard of golden dust began. I worried it would engulf my mother, but then the luminous light that had beaten a retreat suddenly reappeared, and the massive golden fog was instantaneously disappeared in the warm air, which was not yet poisoned with torridness, as it usually happens at the onset of the austral summer…
…Connections dissolve... details become smaller and smaller...entire fragments disappear.
Three and a half.
A city park. Early autumn. An artificial zigzagging pond. A poison-green t-shirt with stars, stripes and lions. This wasn't just a t-shirt, this was direct proof of the economic schizophrenia of the Soviet Union. Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, everything is a piece of cake, easy: t-shirts, stores, money - not a problem. You want to buy a t-shirt? Simply go to the store and buy one, or if you’re lazy - you order it off the Internet, put it on the boy, and take him out for a walk. Dixi. No hidden subtext or messages of any sort. But back then, so that I could run around in that t-shirt, my godfather spent several years working as a geologist in Iraq. After his return to the Soviet Union he had to exchange all his hard-earned foreign currency for checks. What are checks? Well, nothing special, money for the elite. Money for the elite??? Uh-huh, you didn't believe that bit about economic schizophrenia. You thought it was just wordplay, a metaphor, eh? Nope! In the land of the Soviets, there were rubles, and these were issued in the form of wages to ordinary people who would purchase ordinary products and bring them back to their ordinary Soviet apartments. The ruble itself was almost always a dirty, crumpled, greasy, tattered piece of paper.
What exactly is a normal Soviet person, and how is he different from someone special? The answer to this question can be found through the process of elimination, that is, by identifying special people and eliminating them from the overall mass. Everyone that remains (approximately 98 percent of the population) is normal. Orwell can take a break while we continue on. Special people back then were those who went abroad, — diplomats, technical specialists, sailors, military personnel. They were forced to voluntarily exchange the hard currency they earned for checks from Vneshtorgbank [Bank for Foreign Trade] It was against the law to buy or sell them, however, they could be used to make purchases in the «Beriozka» - "birch tree" stores. The stores with this poetic name were, in fact, an insurmountable citadel for that most ordinary Soviet man with his torn and tattered rubles. Moreover, the checks themselves were different, and while diplomats were issued the D series which could be used to buy anything, the checks with the blue and yellow stripes were good for only about a quarter of the products on display. And so the "special human" was distinguished from the rest, and knew his unabashedly privileged, but just the same, his very own place. But what, then, was sold in those stores back then: Happiness? Eternal youth? Love? - No, completely ordinary goods: sausages, alcohol, household appliances, clothes, shoes. That was where my godfather bought me, as a present, the poisonous green t-shirt with stars, stripes and lions. Why am I telling you this? - So that it's understood WHERE (in time and space) that early autumn, that park, and that zigzagging pond were located. To make my way along its concrete "shores" embedded with pieces of marble seemed to me then a feat, an achievement of the highest order. But papa's hand spoiled everything. If I could wriggle free from mama’s grasp with a victorious cry, “I’ll do it myself,” but from papa’s it was impossible. In the end, I tired of this "leash" and began playing at first next to the willow, lush, but sad beyond its years, and then deserted it for the cheerful, despite its yellowish leaves, chestnut tree.
"So this is him? Our shadow judge?"
"Nothing is set in stone."
I raised my head. Multi-colored cords were enmeshed in the branches. In some places they bulged, like the belly of a young python who had recently consumed his lunch, in other places they were burly and twisted, like long unwashed African dreadlocks, entangled like the thoughts of a paraphrenik, they seemed to be a braking distance from the unusual dance. Lunar. Nervous. Exhausting. And caught in this ghostly dragnet was a mishmash of colorful disks, lattices, arcs, and bands.
Some of the cords were hanging like vines, on which were perched opposing interlocutors. No, there were no kimonos or pleated collars: These were not a contrast to reality, rather, they were contrasted, each one, to the other.
On the left - total intellectual, but not the bohemian type: a good-quality, clearly made-to-order suit, white collar, standing like a soldier on watch, glasses in a thin gold frame. On the right - a paint-spattered robe and thick blobs of indeterminate color, work jeans, a cigarette butt glued to his lower lip. He looked like a house painter that has taken to drink, but one can feel in their conversation a sense of belonging to the common cause, an inner kinship.
"But he's really not one of us?" asked the "house painter," swinging like on a swing.
"No, he thinks of himself as someone who understands the ins and outs, while we are like savages, who have found form, but have no comprehension of its meaning."
"Not really, his conception is a lot more complex, and the main thing is that everything is well-founded. To us he is what he is, but this Piet and Severinovich, I’m afraid they’ll end up in a jam (friendly laughter).
"Good boy! Oh, is it nothing that he's," - indicating me, the «painter» shrugged, – "how shall I say..." - he snapped his fingers looking for the word, - "currently-vital"?
"Right, how to say it?" To tell you the truth, I myself didn't fully understand, after all, the main thing is that nothing is set in stone, you yourself know,...and he himself should have be summoned…
These people were evidently talking about me, and I didn't like it. My parents had met up with their friends and threw their controlling looks my way only occasionally, giving me some room to maneuver. I began with the "intellectual". First, I threw small pebbles and pieces of dried earth at him, and then I began throwing sticks. The thing was, all the alien objects, flying up to some kind of invisible barrier about thirty centimeters from his impeccably polished shoes, disappeared like small meteorites entering the Earth's atmosphere, only they weren't incinerated, rather they disintegrated into elementary particles. What were they? If in our world particles are called electrons, photons, and quarks, these particles would be called zigzagots, semi-circlettes, and curvonises. They disintegrated like a fountain, gradually settling on the cords.
Then, the idea - no, it didn't come to me, it rushed full on, instantly overwhelming my entire still insignificant mind. Do understand: there are ideas that enter the brain like tiny splinters, and you can live with them there for a long time, postponing their implementation indefinitely, meanwhile experiencing only a slight tingling from lost opportunities. And then there are ideas, that fill the mind instantaneously and completely, subjugating all your intellectual efforts, immobilizing all other realms of activity, guiding your will, your mental and physical resources toward their implementation, and any other activity is completely unbearable to the being. The biggest problem with these ideas is that when they do come to fruition, instead of releasing the being, what occurs is the creation of an existential void. My idea consisted of gathering up a few little pebbles, as many as would fit in my fist, and to toss them up and simultaneously capture them in a photograph.
Capture them in a photograph? At three years of age? If your daddy is "a real Soviet amateur photographer," then, believe me, this could be so. In some mafia clans, they place a pistol in an infant’s crib, and in the mountain kishlaks of Afghanistan, children start playing with Kalashnikovs in early childhood. In many musician’s families, they believe that in order for a child to develop a musical ear he must listen to great composers while still in the womb. For me, the camera occupied the place of the gun and the musical instrument. Before I could walk, I was looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter button. While I was flailing around with my rattle and babbling, my father was telling me about lens speed and the significance of ISO.
There was also developing and printing in the darkroom, which was really a combination bathroom. Like a good monster, the red light swallowed it all: the desolate green enamel paint on the walls, and the window between the bathroom and the kitchen, which was there in order to let light in thereby saving on electricity. Possibly this window in the "Khrushchevki" apartments was part of a plan to develop a new species of human - homo duskapian. But vileness of the bathroom lost its impact when beloved faces and familiar places appeared on the blank sheets in the photographic tray. Later they would shrink up, suspended by wooden clothespins, losing their mystique, like a woman worn down by life.
Father explained all his actions simply: what if he grows up to be a slacker, doesn't want to go to school and get a job? He can always earn a living with the camera. And so at three and a half, with a camera in hand, preset by my father to the right aperture and shutter speed, I already knew what I wanted to "capture" and at least knew how to operate the focus ring. Some thirty percent of those "distorted photo-masterpieces" could be called "almost sharp".
This time, as always, in response to my request to go out on a shoot, papa, as if giving me his blessing, hung the strap around my thin little childish neck and released me on my free creative voyage. I ran to the spot for the shoot, raised the camera, twisted the ring and...saw in the viewfinder the branches of an ordinary tree - no uncles, cords, or lattices. I lowered it - there they sit, looking at me, laughing, and the crazy ropes and the multicolored semi-circle, all in place. Again I looked through the viewfinder - an empty tree, lowered it - there they sit, the bastards, guffawing. The camera, my hands, eyes – raised – looked, lowered – looked, raised – looked, lowered – looked – the result was the same. I picked up a normal rock and with all my childish foolhardiness I launched it at the "painter". To the accompaniment of chortling laughter the rock splintered into variegated particles. Then something just snapped in my head, cracked apart, sunk, and with a cry of cry of childish rage "diiiirrty skuuunk," I hurled at them daddy's new Zenith, which according to the immutable laws of gravity plunged into the pond. And in vain, I in snotty wrath proved that they are the first, mama pulled me by the hand, shook me and said, "I don't know what I'm going to do with you," next came my stone-faced father, carrying the camera by the strap, from which, as if from a dying soldier, trickled its high-aperture life...
A playground. A free day. A morning swimming in expectations. Parents don't get you up for kindergarten, you sleep in, swallow the porridge whole so as not to waste precious seconds on chewing and spill out into the courtyard where....hundreds of possibilities, billions of options from a common game of "cops and robbers" to a local remake of "Guest from the Future" (among the props: a string bag with empty bottles and an old jewelry box with a broken lid depicting a melophone) is threaded through your joyful life. But very rarely there were Sunday mornings when the courtyard was as empty as the airwaves of the zombifying boob tube on a regular workday, and then even the icky girl with the stupid Nyusha doll that had to be put into a toy house with a plastic stove, table and dishes used for her feeding, this stupid Nyusha, even repulsive Dima the Badger, who had laid into you with a stick the day before, all this was acceptable.
But on that morning there was no one at all, and after hanging off of the monkey bars, going around on the merry-go-round, playing soccer against the wall, kicking around the slides - I got bored. But this was more than boredom; this was boredom compounded by gray-grief. The formula went like this: gray-grief = down-in-the-dumps + depression *nothing-to-do. This inner fog was gray in color. And I don’t mean the sleek metallic gray of a new Mercedes, and not the pleasant fuzzy gray of a mink coat, no, this was the half-dead gray of a rat that quickly caught in the throat and tears began to well up and seep out. To somehow amuse myself, I ran after the felt-tips and paper, climbed into the hide-out and began to draw. You forgot what a hide-out and felt-tips are? Felt-tips are markers. I had a set of them from India in 48 colors that some friend of my dad’s from work managed to "procure" from GUM - the state-owned super-store. Back then I thought that GUM was some mythic island where magical trees grew: from one tree dangled markers, from another other - radio-controlled cars and model railroad sets, from the third grew cans of Coca-Cola (which back then I drank just once in my life) and bottles of Pepsi from Novorossiysk. And a hide-out is that super-secret place that you can’t reveal to anyone. For us it was an old walnut tree that grew right up to the roof of the garage, and if you scrambled through the branches via the secret route known only to a chosen few, then you found yourself in something resembling a dwelling. From the outside, you couldn’t see anyone was there, but the person inside, on the other hand, had an excellent view of the territory. And so there I was, like Tyutchev, "I sit pensive and alone," drawing. The picture turned out, to put it lightly, on the gloomy side: a poisonous turquoise sun like a skein of wool in my mother’s knitting basket, extended, dark blue clouds, a fence saturated in green turned into a mossy green (I wanted the wooden fence to be the color of boogers - dried snot), on which black rectangles hung. In reality, around the entire perimeter of the fence, like television sets that are stuck on displaying a single frame, panels were hung showing characters from Soviet cartoons.
I did not have time to finish my drawing. Someone set about kicking the walnut tree. This did not bode well, because the owners of the garages, in case of capturing the "little bastard who runs across and dents the roof" could land him one across the ear and drag him across the entire courtyard to hand him over to his parents. I, of course, was about to rush out of there like a gray-collared chipmunk about to be caught by the tail, but I didn’t have time. He was standing right in front of me - a tall, red-bearded, with a large forehead, in a "tattered" straw hat.
"I wasn’t running on the roof, honestly, I climbed up, carefully, to do some drawing. It’s just easier to see from up here…"
He quietly took my drawing and, comparing it to the original, extended his hand in the direction of the playground. Suddenly the sun changed, first, it was suffused with crimson, then it began to fade into purple and gradually merge into turquoise. It became dark, as if it was late evening, the rays of this dark-blue illumination were like the iridescent wings of the morph butterfly or a labradorite stone. If this is hard to picture, then think of the iridescent surface of a bubble and you’ll get it. The clouds the color of a two-day old bruise together with the aforementioned little thingy with sun-rays glowed light sapphire (By the way, it was very beautiful - I had really hit the mark with the color - nailed it). The fence turned greenish, more marshy-colored, like moss, in short, it turned into a swamp-green color, or, more precisely, the color of dried snot. Freshly-flowing from the nose snot, soft and moist, they are the color of "yellow-green solid" paint, plain, not cut with anything else, or "green light chrome" mixed with two thirds white, and boogers that are good and dry are the color of "natural umber," cut with just a little bit of white. Let’s not get pretentious. We all know what color dried boogers are, so you can easily imagine the color of the fence. The boards began to turn off, one by one, as if someone was deactivating them by remote control. When the last one had turned into a black rectangle, for a few seconds HE looked first at the landscape, then at the drawing, back and forth, and then abruptly flipped it over (with the white side facing him) and everything became as before, as if a sophisticated color filter was suddenly removed. "The idea is bold, but you overdid it with the colors, in my opinion, you know, like how actors can overact, and in the end it comes off as phony. Alright then, you’ll catch on in time."
Then he trained his gaze upon me, his eyes like lakes in an autumn forest lost in the vegetation. One of his earlobes looked like it had been chewed upon. He reminded me of our yard dog that we called Rusty. A healthy mutt – a shepherd crossbred with a "street terrier." One of his ears stood halfway erect, the other, grizzled and torn in several places, hung limp and listless.
"Work every day and don’t pay any attention to anyone."
"Work, how? Drawing?" I asked hesitantly.
"You’re the artist. You decide. Try everything, it’ll be hard work, but you’ll figure it out."
I was scared, but I asked, "Me? I’m an artist?"
His expression became feral, he began to inhale and exhale, baring what remained of his teeth. They were multicolored, as if he chewed on pencils or ate paint directly from the tubes.
"That’s it. Now he’s going to bite me," I thought and squeezed my eyes shut.
"If you ever ask such a dumbass question or ever say that you’re not an artist, I`ll find you and cut off your nose."
When I opened my eyes, there was no one next to me, and Lard and Rail, as boys from our courtyard called Yura and Yegor, who were inseparable friends appeared in the distance, the felt-tips and paper were given to grandma Stepanovna for safekeeping, and I went with them to catch tadpoles in one of the abandoned construction sites. And then, a couple of months later….
Enough already. My patience is exhausted. What is it that I’m reading? Is this a novel or an autobiography? Are the characters fictional or real? And what connections are lost? And who disappears? Will someone finally answer me?! Is it I who am speaking? No, it is you speaking, YOU my reader, and you have every right to know everything. I answer you – nothing that I write about is a dream, or delirium, or hallucinations (I sincerely hope not), nor a writer’s inventions, and not even basic bragging. As for what it is that erodes to the point of non-existence, well, this is them - Spories - and what that is I’ll explain later. But now, seeing how you interrupted me :-) indulge me by permitting a discursive, but very important digression.
The thing is, what occurred in my consciousness then was the beginning of a tectonic shift, a logical upheaval and a certain mindset began to take shape. At that time, a series of events took place in connection with which I underwent a sort of mental eruption, my connections and supports began to develop fissures, the cogitative magma cooled, forming layer upon layer of a substructure to my personality. However, let’s take it one point at a time.
It all began with a book. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Young Artist. Frankly, this was not a masterpiece of world literature, especially since there were also albums on art in our library. I remember a big blue book on Northern Italian Renaissance painting and an album on Bosch. About the renaissance it was written indigestible, officialese, with obvious impurity of art criticism slang, and the album about Hieronymus Bosch in general was in a foreign language. The books they read to me and that I tried to read on my own were linear: there was a beginning, a development of the plot, and an ending. In contrast to these, in the dictionary epochs, styles, artists were simply changed with one movement of the hand: if you don’t like African art, flip over a sheath of pages, and here you are - full-blown Rubens. I absorbed things better by ear, so when my older sister refused to read to me, I used coercive methods such as rinsing the paint-saturated rags in the aquarium and teaching tricks to the hamster, which ended with so many acrobatics that he had his own little "out of body" experience. When I came near his cage, he would have a sort of nervous breakdown – first scurrying in circles, and then trying to bury his head in the sawdust, like an ostrich. The inevitable finale – I would end up in the corner, and my sister – in hysterics. This did not suit either one of us, so I decided to change my tactics. First, I played "war" with my toy soldiers, where I voiced every one of them, both our guys, and the "damned fascists" who in the end I subjected to a constant bombardment of tennis balls, and then I moved into my down-low break dance. I would sit on the floor and begin rotating on my butt. And as I rotated, I would shout out my own accompaniment. So there I was, singing and dancing for all to see. My sister would do her best to act as if nothing was amiss, but my mother just couldn’t stand it. "Do something with your brother - find for him something to do." And I would triumphantly bring her the big red volume.
"Why didn’t you read it yourself?" you ask. I could read a little, but the thing was that I had a very uncommon issue with my vision back then, with the way I saw things. It’s like when I looked at images, they were backwards. For example, if Mama would tell me «Spell «Papa is at work» with your blocks. » I would set about putting the phrase together. Then she would, naturally, ask me to read it, and I would produce some kind of nonsense verse a la Kruchenykh:
Ap ap si
Ta kr ow
Ew ees mih
When I tried to make sense of a text, syllables, words, and sometimes even entire lines would jump around like in leapfrog. Later, in my school copybooks, parts of the sentences could be written back to front. Lucky for me, a professor of ophthalmology was a guest at one of the neighbors, and he quickly diagnosed the problem. This ailment, according to him, would pass by age ten, and so he advised my parents to simply wait, don’t do anything. And, in fact, it did pass. Also, for some reason he immediately noticed my left-handedness, and strongly advised my parents not to try to make me right-handed (THANKS PROFESSOR!!!!!!). But now let’s get back to the book. In just a few months of reading most of the great artists passed before me.
And, at the same time, I constantly heard the word "bourgeois" coming from the television and radio, meaning, as they explained to me, the "bad" and the decadent West. While "bad bourgeoisie" could somehow fit within the realm of my imagination, the decadent West was beyond comprehension, which is not to say that I didn’t have my own theory about it. "Decadent" meant "decaying," or "rotten", as if gangrenous. This meant that everyone in this West was gradually rotting: some maybe had a putrid hand, other a leg, like in a war movie, and some had rotten teeth – in short, it was a global leper colony.
There were constant reports being shown about the Capitalist oppression of the working class, followed by our smiling seamstresses and tractor operators. The achievements of the agricultural sector, the achievement of heavy industry, the achievements of public construction projects. Everywhere nothing but achievements. One fine day I had enough of it. I turned to my mother and, as if conducting a survey, I began very deliberately to ask:
"Mama, is our country the best in the world?"
"The very, very best, and everything in our country is the very best?"
"And ‘western’– this means bad?"
Mama began to feel uneasy:
"Why are you asking?"
"Mama, is "western" bad?"
"Well, not everything is bad; some things are good."
"Well, it would take awhile to list them."
"How about Soviet art? Is it the best?" - I fetched the book and found the article about Socialist Realism. Mama read out loud, long and thoughtfully. It followed from the text that Socialist Realism - A.K.A. Socrealism - emerged and developed in the struggle against bourgeois ideology and Modernist art and was at present in the forefront of global progressive artistic culture. At this point I imagined to myself: there goes Socrealism, all full of itself - young, tall, blonde, pumped up, with a triumphant face, his left hand, extended, clasped around a red flag, and clinging to his right arm – his girl. Behind them a string of featureless extras plods along, and at the very back, some character in a cap, his eyes screwed up, a thug’s face, spitting out shells of sunflower seeds at his feet - in one word, Modernism, and his woman - a waif wrapped in a filthy cloak and idiotic, dirty broad-brimmed hat - bourgeois ideology. What’s more, if "bourgeois" is her last name, and "ideology" is her first name, then what would her patronymic be?...
"Well, of course, compared with, for example, Modernism, Socialist Realism is probably better, but with Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Bronzino (my breath caught, I so liked the sound of this name – with a name like that who needs a monument?)," - I listed the names I knew by heart of the Renaissance masters, - "and Mannerism, the Baroque, is it also better than these?" - I wasn’t just asking, I was doggedly expecting an answer.
"Sasha, but they lived so long ago," answered mama, having smelled trouble for some time, and the fumes emanated from my still unformed intellect were so strong that just a spark any kind of falsehood would be enough for this very intellect, as the song goes, to boil over and, accordingly, move into mortal combat, which ends, as everybody knows, in the destruction of the old world, razed to the ground, but mama was against any kind of catastrophic change or cataclysm, even if they were taking place in the her young son’s little "pate".
"So they weren’t ‘western’? There wasn’t any bourgeoisie back then?" - I pressed her.
Mama made a decision worthy of Solomon: she told me to wait for papa, who would explain everything. Papa didn’t explain it. No, he said something about how the bourgeoisie might have existed as a class back then, but that it was devoid of ideology and not a threat to our country, whereas now they had missiles aimed at us and a commitment to the arms race. To tell you the truth, my father came home thoroughly tanked, and the only real commitment for him at that point was the commitment to make it from mama’s dinner to grandma’s handmade pillow.
Inside my brain, a maddening logical vacuum emerged. In terms of sensation, it felt like pants without a belt - you’re constantly pulling them up, but they slide down just the same, just like this thought - you constantly go back to it, but nothing of value comes into your head. Then, flaccidly transparent, like dead jellyfish, shapeless elements of thoughts began to take shape. I attempted to use my "brainarium" to compare the creations of the Renaissance titans with works by current Soviet artists; after all, if our country is the bestest of the best, one major achievement three rows deep and then some, then artists today should be putting out paintings that would rock the world every time a new one is unveiled. In a country where universal education is free, and anyone can become an artist, and also the most advanced, and also without those, what were they... ‘bourgeois prejudices’ (another slippery expression that I was never given a clear explanation of) in art should be sooooo very..., just so very amazing with arms thrown wide open and eye-popping out of this world.
But in the meantime, evening ceased strewing its blueness all over the place and handed over its power to the night, which instantaneously darkened its indistinct arts, and instead of getting an intelligible answer, I was simply banished to sleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up, although, no, when you wake up your eyes slowly peel open, like the wrapper off of a piece of gum, but I bolted out of sleep, whipped open my eyes, like one whipps off a blanket. I have Omni Ship and if I can make it to the secret caves of Venus, then I can somehow get to the bottom of this art issue. "But I don`t have a fuel tank special for the journey", - suddenly this thought such small and mean as the dog of Anna Vladimirovna, our neighbor from the fifth floor painfully "bit" me. "We’ll get to the bottom of this," I said in a whisper, imitating father, and carefully, so as not to wake anybody, I pitter-pattered over to it, to get it ready.
"Say what? Get what ready?"
"What do you think? The Omni Ship, of course!"
The Omni Ship.
Once while watching television they showed an amphibious vehicle. After the program I asked my father:
"Can it travel on water?"
"And on land?"
"And it can fly and swim underwater?"
"Dad, aren’t there cars that can go underwater and also on the water, and also on roads and in the mountains and also that can fly everywhere, even into outer space?" I asked excitedly.
"No," said Dad, then he stared at me intently, "but you’ll have one."
"Promise?" I said, squirming. My father didn’t often make promises, because he always kept them. I got my Omni Ship.
After this conversation, a couple of months went by. One evening after kindergarten, mama said that she needed to take me to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) clinic. A stinky corridor with lots of doors, and some lady in a white lab coat with a headlamp on, like miners wear in the movies, and outside, a downpour. The umbrella. Mama wanted to hurry up and open it, but of course it was stuck, and when it finally opened, several of the broken, nylon-coated spokes looked like the fins on a slaughtered seal. And meanwhile what awaited at home: "Whatever I make, that’s what you’re going to eat" and the puddle in front of the entrance happily embraced my two feet when I jumped in, and with a light, but well-deserved push on the head, my mom directed me toward the familiar door upholstered in fake brown leather. While mama rummaged in her bag for the key, I managed to jump a few times and press the bell. The lock made its obligatory two turns and on the threshold, there stood my father to greet us. He let me pass inside and whispered something to my mother.
"He doesn’t deserve it!" said mama in such a tone as if I had mugged an old lady on the street.
But if I didn’t deserve something, then there was "something" I didn’t deserve. In other words, "something" was in our house, and this "something" was meant for me!
Sadly, not only wasn’t there any kind of present for me, but in the armchair near the coffee table, there sat friend of my father’s who I called Uncle Gene. And he was not sitting there, but he also was clearly about to ask me: "How’s life, little guy? How’s kindergarten going? Did you make any new friends?" - I already knew by heart the series of boring questions and I had no doubt that even now he would commence with subjecting me to his oral questioning. However, this did not happen because father said: "Well then, we made him an Omni Ship, the first in the world ever in existence, but you don’t deserve it - you’re behaving so badly."
"So there is, there really, truly is an Omni Ship!" my heart was racing as the thought flitted around in my head.
"You torture teacher’s aide Olga at the kindergarten," continued father.
"Where??? Where is it? Where did they hide it?"
"He was horsing around at the doctor’s office," said mama, "No, don’t give it to him - he didn’t earn it. We’ll give it to Uncle Gene’s Yulia. She knows how to behave herself!"
"Aaauugh! Help, the Omni Ship is lost! I…", further on my phrase skidded like a car. I mean, how can I say I won’t fool around anymore - they wouldn’t believe it, and anyway, I will mess around, that’s for sure.
And then Uncle Gene (who I least expected it from) said, "Well, alright then, why are you being so hard on him? He’ll try to improve; he’ll work on his conduct. Right, Sasha?"
I earnestly nodded my head up and down, after all, trying to improve and working on my conduct - these were processes drawn out over time, while the Omni Ship was right here and right now and I needed it!
"Okay, then, we’re going to let you have it," said Uncle Gene, "remember, it’s the first in the world, so don’t break it." He said something else, but, frankly, I wasn’t even listening anymore.
"Where!?" I thought, and then had an idea: "It must be on the balcony, tied to a rope so that it doesn’t fly off!"
"Alright, shall we activate it?" asked papa, and he and Uncle Gene headed toward … the kitchen.
"Wait, the kitchen? What’s going on? It’s an Omni Ship, right? How could it fit there?"
Beyond the wall the light switch clicked, and I, head over heels, bouncing off the walls of the hallway like a ball in a game of billiards, squeezed into the kitchen space. The simple lamp shade concealed inside a sallow, like a patient at the last stage of tuberculosis, 40-watt light bulb that barely noticeably shook and from time to time blinked. Directly below it - on the one hand the same old kitchen table I’ve seen a thousand times, on the other hand - something totally new. It was upside down on the floor. The legs were sanded and oiled and fashioned into handle with rubber-coated handgrips.
Atop the narrow siding on the table top, a thick heavy plank was firmly attached with iron braces. Mounted on this was a miniature captain’s wheel. This was no store-bought, pre-fabricated toy - it was a solid, nicely varnished, wooden steering wheel with a brass core, with the frame held in place by large screws. It would be impossible to mindlessly turn this wheel as the stroke was tight, but not so tight as to interfere with the motion. The plank bore an inscription in white paint: "OMNI SHIP – S 1", I sounded out the name. "So what’re 1 and S?"
"Well now," said Uncle Gene, "1 is the first in the world, and S is for Sasha, that is, yours."
In the center of the tabletop, a square had been carefully carved out using a jigsaw - the pilot’s seat - where a child’s stool had been set. The jigsaw had also been used to carve out geometric shapes along the perimeter of the tabletop.
"This is the control system," said my father, "See, the triangle lets you move over land, the square - over water, the hexagon - underwater, and the circular recess is how you travel into out space. Other control levers (the table legs), that are near the captain’s wheel make you go up and down, and the ones in back are how you veer left and right, and the captain’s wheel operates like the steering wheel of a car. Remember when your godfather let you drive? This is just like that."
"And fuel?" I practically bellowed, "What kind of fuel does it take, ‘cause a car won’t go anywhere without gas, so what about this one here?!!!"
"Good boy, quick on the uptake," my father praised me. "Look, when you’re, say, at sea, you need to put sea shells here, in this compartment, and for underwater - you put these pebbles from the beach there - you still have some from summer? (To be sure, half a box of multicolored pebbles, and even pieces of glass bottles polished by the waves and all kinds of conch shells, and shells from mussels. The sideboard alone had two huge souvenir shells – for a jaunt to the ocean, I quickly caught on.) If you need to go to some town or village, or you simply want to cover some wide expanses, always on ground, in short, then you pack some earth in there." "Only not from the flowerpots!!" came mama’s voice from somewhere behind at high volume. "If you want to go to a desert somewhere, then instead of filling your ‘tank’ with earth, you need to put sand inside," finished Uncle Gene.
Too delighted to talk - and what was there to say? - I could not stand still - I was blown away, flipping out, ready to climb up the walls.
"And to outer space?" - these words I didn’t ask so much as I loudly exhaled them.
"Well, that’s more complicated," said Dad with a serious expression, "but doable. Look," and first he took a dried piece of clay from a crumpled plastic bag, "this is lunar soil, it’ll get you to the moon, in the right conditions, in seven minutes of travel," and then he took out a folded piece of paper and unrolled it. On the paper lay some blue powder (pulverized bath salts), "this is for if you feel like going to Neptune." "But the journey there is long and difficult, with lots of meteorites," Uncle Gene broke into the conversations, "really think about it if you want to fly there." "And this," father pulled out a piece of dried paint or primer, all wrinkled, a dirty dark red color, "fuel for a flight to Mars. That’s all, you can start your travels, only do it right and be very careful," and they went into the other room to drink grandfather’s young wine.
I had long suspected that grown-ups sometimes had "gaga brains" - to put together something like this and instead of just once taking it out for a spin, to go off and talk loudly about business, about acquaintances, about things their acquaintances were doing and then quietly about some kind of "Alesandrisayich" and the huge «sovok». Well, as they say, no skin off my back - if they don’t want it, they just don’t want it - more for me!.
From then on, where didn’t it take me? - I dove under the icebergs in the Arctic Ocean (this involved engaging a sophisticated underwater mode activated by mussel shells nested inside a piece of ice. Once the ice melted, that meant the oxygen would deplete and it was time to surface) and flew past the vile, liquefied, expelling huge bubbles (poisonous, of course!) that stank like the atmosphere around the door of Lyuba, the alcoholic – of Neptak fumes - these were the terrible, toxic swamps of the planet Neptune – to warn the good, pale-blue to the point of transparency, but one-armed and almost blind Neptunites about the insidious attack planned against them by the vicious Neptugangsters, fanged, and the color of blue vitriol mixed with mud.
Тhese were great travels, I really had a blast on them. I thought so that time, but after one incident I realized that all these trips were only basic training before the real adventures began. It all began when papa’s friend - a guy from his work - not one of the engineers, but one of the associates from the laboratory came into our kitchen for a smoke.
He took a long look at the bizarre contraption and at me so into what I was doing that I was completely oblivious to everything else. Then he asked me to explain how it worked. I reluctantly (well, what’re you going to do with these grown-ups) explained.
"And so in outer space you can only go to the Moon, Mars, and Neptune?"
"Uh-huh, I guess," I said expectantly.
"And the Constellation of Hunting Dogs? The blue-white supergiant Rigel in the constellation Orion? You can’t even fly through the most picayune (that’s what he said – ‘picayune’) Andromeda nebula?"
This fellow, Uncle Alex shouldn’t have worked in the chemical laboratory for the last quarter century. He should’ve sent himself back half a millennium, become acquainted with Cesare Borgia, and engaged in several highly intricate, tightly woven intrigues. He didn’t just get me going, with just a few phrases he wound me up so tightly that I was ready to burst, like that abovementioned vile, toxic Neptak bubble.
I got a hold of myself to the best of my ability, and then blurted out, "I need special fuel to get there, and," I paused, "it doesn’t exist in nature," I tossed out, having previously heard this phrase. I figured that Alex should immediately back off after hearing this, but no such luck.
"You don’t need fuel to get there; you need a special accelerator," he said.
The defenses I had mounted crumpled like a house of cards.
"It doesn’t exist in nature, either," I began to repeat.
But this Alex, although an amazing schemer, didn`t want to keep me on tenter-hooks.
"Yes, there is! I’ll give it to your father to install it for you." Two days later, papa came home with a glass 3D cube inside of which could be seen coils and tube filled with multicolored liquids.
"Alex gave you this special accelerator, a brand new model that operates remotely; we don’t have to install it with wires." And moving aside mama’s violets, father hoisted this mindboggling, insane contraption onto the low kitchen counter, and then spent a fair amount of time tinkering with it.
"Keep in mind that you can’t travel in open space without protection," and he handed me some craaaazzy, but absolutely out of this world that covered almost my entire face. The rubber seal reeked of human sweat and also exuded something sharp, unnatural and chemical.
And so now "all barriers were down," and I could venture to farthest reaches of the universe. I could fly over the volcanoes of Mercury - easy-peasy-piece-of-cake. I "flew" the equivalent of several moderately-sized sci-fi novels, but science fiction really isn’t my preferred genre, therefore I’ll leave all my flitting around, meandering, threading my way around the nether regions of the galaxy behind the scenes, or, more precisely, "between the lines." After I uttered my diminutive, yet decisive "We’ll get to the bottom of this", all those fire-balls, white dwarfs, planets, nebulae, took hold of my imagination by day and at night, in my dreams, they paled and somehow lost their luster. Whereas before, breaking through a meteor shower, I could sense flaming masses quickly whistling past me and could smell singed hair (my own hair!) filling the entire space to the point of nausea, then that night, they would limp past me like half-starved street dogs. Ah, well, what they say is true:
The slow exodus of all my dear friends
And I come back to the night after talking with my parents about art. So, my eyes wide open in anticipation of new adventures, carefully so as not to make any noise, I slipped out of my room on tippy-toes, slowly now, bare feet on the floor into the kitchen. I would quietly move the chairs aside, remove the salt dish and table cloth, and, most importantly, turn the table upside down, thus transforming it into the Omni Ship - I had a system all worked out, and when I was caught, I would be in deep trouble with mom and dad, but this time - success! Nobody turned on the light and sent me to bed. The street lights shone brightly. "Dydyts-dydyts, dydyts-dydyts, dydyts-dydyts, dydyts-dydyts" – hummed the empty aquarium for people - a night tram. Now all that I needed to do was insert the book (that very Encyclopedia for the Young Artist) into the tank, but, even as awesome as this vessel was, the tank wasn’t big enough. A roll of blue tape - that’s the way to save the day…In a flash I strapped the book to the wheel and…Right here I should note that Omni Ship had been shifted into auto-pilot, but back then I didn’t know this expression, therefore I just leaned over the wheel and asked: “Omni Ship, you have carried me all over the Milky Way, and to Drzbag – the highest mountain on Pluto—we’ve traversed together; take me now to the place described in this book.” I stood behind the wheel, enlaced by blue web, navigating my course, and a beacon for me was the most visible luminary at that moment - a streetlight in window to my right. Its cloudy, color of cornflakes in milk, light at first passed over my eyes like brush laden with powder, and then it began to roll over me like painter’s roller, then the pressure grew, more and more, like a bludgeon, pounding my consciousness, but I hung on. Quick and mean, like the blows of a picador, gusts of wind, the unbearable light of the blazing sadist beyond the window, even tears, which are supposed to be hot or burning, seemed to cut me to the core with their bitter flowing cold. I was crying, shaking, but kept hanging on. Finally the pain began to pass, and the space around me began to dim and becаme blurred. Everything became whitish, dull-colored and hard-to-recognize. Then came the white and infinitely sounding zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Gradually, this became a hum in my ear zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz dadadadadeep down somewhere, and it became infused with color and sounded of silence. Bleached, froth, snowy-whiteness, haziness none of this was right. This was a contrasting, sharply-edged color - heavy to the point of suffocating and brilliant like freshly-hewn Carrara marble. If you like, it was fundamental, an essence, an extract of white. It was as if the white color had been distilled from the universe itself to produce that white, which, no matter what, I had to negotiate. I could sense the forward motion, but it was weak and constantly bogged down in space. Further on in keeping with the requirements of this genre, I should write about the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m not going to do that, because there wasn’t any kind of tunnel, rather I simply had a feeling that everything was distorted, and the universe was moving in reverse and then other colors began to break through this absolute white and mix with it, the barrier weakened, and then, suddenly, I realized I was smoothly sailing some twenty centimeters above the ground along a shallow, narrow hollow. Along two, low shores, frozen just like in the children’s game "Red light, green light, one, two, three!" and you spin around and everyone is frozen in place. Here they were posed just like I had seen them hundreds of times in the reproductions in the book - there they were, all who had stirred my imagination and activated my hyperactive childish mind.
First was the girl from Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring. She looked at me calmly and even tenderly. Tall, long-legged, beyond this there has to be some universal word - I can’t think of any that fits either in Russian or in English, but the root for whatever word should relate to "flower," to words for flowers, the first flower, flourish, flowering, only even deeper and stronger. Beneath her feet - flowers even with delicate stalks, but wide-brimmed heads, like the top hats worn by gentlemen in the Romantic era. Her dress was like petals, airy and soft, from the feathery hemline to the neckline, which was gathered in a profusion of buds resembling a tightly-woven, wreath. And, indeed, she herself resembled a lithe, slender rosebud, still closed but on the verge of opening. She was on the verge of releasing the new life already living inside her.
With one hand she supported her nicely rounded belly, and the other she reached into the thousand-roses comprising the folds of her dress to pull something out to give me, but, unfortunately, I had already moved on, and the movement of her hand, freed from the enveloping silk waves, became still, with her index finger a little stiffly curved.
And on the opposite side of her, a little aslant а «muzhchinka» was stiffly standing. I think the word «muzhchinka» is the most appropriate for him. He was the chairman from Gerasimov’s Collective Farm Holiday. His face was elongated, a little imbecilic, with traces of degeneracy and without any signs of ancestral memory. Heavy as bags of moist sugar, his eyelids almost buried his organs of vision. His light long shirt with collar securely fastened should probably tell me both about the heavy burden of peasant labor, hungry years, and the difficulties and triumphs of the second Five-Year Plan, but in fact it was simply ridiculous clothes, which emphasized his impenetrable denseness. His hand was extended upwards and it was like he was about to vigorously wave it and say: "I don`t give a shit at your socialist realism!" I had no time to see anything else (and was there anything else to see? - I doubt it), because Omni Ship continued onward, and in front of it, the youth from Agnolo Bronzino flaunted himself. During his life, Agnolo painted many portraits of young people, but this was the very one, in which a youth was holding a book, that became known throughout the world and at this time is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
He was openly flaunting himself: each detail of his clothes, facial expression, posture - everything was carefully selected, everything was open to the world, for public display and comment.
Between the beret with numerous little ties that looked like gel-caps, and fashionable upright pleated collar, his head, like a Turkmen melon, massive and elongated in the same way, with highly raised chin, was firmly situated on the muscular neck. His entire aspect suggested an explosive combination of finely wrought self-worth bordering on out-and-out tyranny, and arrogance, bitter as chili peppers. His lordly, arrogant, condescending look, his lips stubbornly closed without being clenched shut, these lips never gushed words. The words from these lips must either be metered out in measured units of orders or released after careful deliberation, the same way that a druggist measures out a deadly and very expensive poison, or they issued forth like deceptively delicate, but strong, oh-so-strong threads, used to masterfully entangle the thoughts of many beautiful women.
After conversing with him for awhile, a lady would cease hearing anybody else and see only these false (who would doubt it), but such desirable lips. And the sullied reputations, broken lives, stabbed in duels in the haze of darkness and stench of old city streets – husbands and grooms, well, well, and so … what then? Well, for you it is maybe drama, and even a tragedy, but for him just a spicy seasoning, not a bad, after all, any rumor, even the most pungent, well, if it means that he is the topic of conversation! His athletic torso just soldered into the stylish, black, heavily pleated, ceremonial dress, which was finished just this morning. And his hands! - an artist’s dream. The long, strong fingers flowed like rivers into the firm palm.
The Omni Ship, after describing a short arc, drew near a creature. Of course, I should say that this was a young woman, but I really wasn’t sure. Yes, the head was that of a female, even with its red headscarf reminiscent of the flag of the USSR, but the neck, this neck was masculine. I would not go so far as to call it bullish, but the athletic build was evident to the naked eye. The torso, though very tentatively, (some rudimentary breasts were visible through the wide blouse) could nevertheless be regarded as feminine. But the wrists of the hands were those of a man’s, though not of the same man as that of the neck. The wrists were covered with taut skin, and the biceps, though not pumped up, but developed did not suggest athletic exertion, rather that the possessor of these arms engaged in heavy physical labor.
Now let’s return to the head and focus on the face slapped onto it. One is immediately confused by the baldness and part on the left side of the head, the wide, sloping forehead, the hard hair, unkempt, in all likelihood combed carelessly, and atop the red rag wound around it. Eyebrows? - Hard to say. They looked as if she tried to pluck them with tweezers, but quit. The combination of ugly, black eyes in conjunction with the broad bridge of the nose and big, hyper-sensual lips produced a strange, oppressive impression.
And the look on her face? The expression is duplicitous. It is the look of a petty Soviet boss: on the one hand, she looks at you like you’re more than an insect, but not quite a person, and on the other hand, as if she is clearly expecting an order from up the chain of command and this is what determines what comes next, because her hand, which all this time is behind her back, well, either she is simply pointing in the direction of an unseen door, or it could be there happens to be a Mauser in that hand, and there is absolutely no question that, if she has to, she will execute whatever directive is passed down to her. No doubt whatsoever.
This android (a word I did not yet know, but the fact that this "aunty" really was horrid, and not just in the way she looked) and I darted forward, abruptly spun about, and then drew up the helm. Omni Ship shot up sharply and towards the side. While I was still processing what was happening, it leveled off, but began to climb quickly, straining with the effort. Now I was really scared. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and I mean NEVER before! At first it was seized with a feverish mechanical shiver, and then it lunged forward and began to fall. Space began to gyrate around me, everything was spinning in my eyes, although, no, the word "spinning" doesn’t connote enough movement – everything was "drilling" and "propellering". There was no blow resulting from impacting the place where I was about to break apart; I simply opened my eyes.
Instead of green grass which I was supposed to flop on face first I saw...a fried egg with a teensy-tiny yolk, and a moire pattern radiating from it, surrounded by the huge radius of white. My look like a dog shaking water off itself, rapidly and energetically blinking, I rid myself of the blurry fuzziness and I could see that this wasn’t any kind of egg yolk. It was just the same old light bulb with the same old shade and the same old ceiling in the kitchen. The only thing that changed it was the look in my mother’s eyes, frightened and resolute. When she walked into the kitchen to make breakfast, there I was, unconscious, hanging on the captain’s wheel, my little hands entangled in the electrical tape I`d rolled myself. To the outside world it looked as if I had been sentenced to the pillory, chained to it and left until I passed out. Parents tried to bring me back to consciousness, but I was out, although it wasn’t long before I came to. I don’t think I need to explain that unpleasantness began with the Omni Ship then, when they began to untangle me from the electrical tape, shake me and spray water on me and inundate me with a shower of light slaps.
And here’s where I should be scribbling something like how it all ended well, and then wrap it up, but then if it all ended well, then you would not be reading this book, and moreover, if we move on, then the question remains open about the psychological residue from all this. That is, I described a smelting furnace fueled by my thoughts and fantasies and this is all well and good; I described the smelting process, and that is certainly of value, but what’s the bottom line? In the end, what is the final product?
Or if you imagine a fraction in which I am the numerator, and all that happened to me is the denominator, what would this equal? What is the answer? And anyway, is literature the right medium for the answer?
Yes, it is. Just the literature is the right way to achieve the answer , and this is because in the beginning there was no "final product," nor could there be. Intuitions, proto-ideas, feelings, premonitions - yes, there were these, but over the years they germinated a lot of thoughts, they have acquired the solid backbone of experience not only of composition or words-addition, but words-subtraction (in other words, editing). This is rather like the way pearls are made – who isn’t fascinated by how the shell is split open, and the little gems mix the colors of the rainbow on their iridescent surfaces, and no one really considers their humble origins as grains of sand that ended up inside the shell of a mollusk and then over a long, persistent period are swathed in nacre.
And so let’s first go back to the page, where during the unreal shaking before falling, there was a moment when the Omni Ship suddenly braked. My peepers were facing down, and so was another frame added to my picture of the world? A diorama? Panorama? No way, none of this; there, time and space broke up and were lost at that point where the Ukrainian evening and Karakum morning melded together. The defense of Sevastopol and surrender of Breda, thoughtful Athenian sages and blithely dancing Flemish peasants, the Egyptian king Ptolemy II, who reigned in the III century BC and a French laundress from the first half of the XVIII century, meaning, of course, Anno Domini. Revolutionaries and aristocrats, elegant pale Parisian dancers in frothy ball gowns with enhanced wind resistance and roughly garbed northern repairmen all elbow-to-elbow, all together innnnnnnnn….., in short, I’m sorry, that’s when I ran out of steam. Say you the truth, to see it is one thing, but to describe it is… But that’s not what matters. The real important thing was that the mass of questions, which, still unformed, have been scattered like the shards of a grenade, and no longer pressured by their pendency.
First, I understood that I had made a discovery. Not, not the discovery of a new passage between the neighborhood buildings or the discovery of a valuable stash of candy in one of the kitchen drawers. No, this was like the discovery of new lands, oceans, galaxies. I discovered a huge space that people have created for people and which they called the "fine arts" and the desire to extend it, to make it bigger, lighter, warmer has remained with me to this day.
And it doesn’t make any difference how you look at it. If it is a boundless sea, then I will carve out a few rivulets; if it is a cosmic galaxy, then I will ignite a few stars; and if it is terra firma, I will cast seeds upon it and wait for them to sprout. I will work hard and be patient until new shoots of paintings and sculptures germinate.
Next, I became cognizant of the fact that visual arts are not the only space for this. Right away I thought of vinyl records, not those children’s fairytales and popular Soviet melodies that I might find carelessly scattered around the record player. There were other records, and these were on the very top shelf. Each time I listened to them, there was something new, interesting, mysterious.
And wasn’t it incredible when out of the crackling, scratching and other noise debris like out of the foam, so different to Soviet popular culture, Vertinsky’s voice, or Rachmaninoff’s composition emerged, transcending time and space? And then there were books! These numbered in the millions, and within each one of them something was written. A small rectangle that contained an entire universe. To study everything, and to try for myself everywhere, yessir! That’s the scale of it, that’s the way!
When I unloaded these thoughts on my parents, my mom obviously did not know how to react, and my father, with a calm half-smile said:
Go for it, young man! For sure, the plans are Napoleonic, and I would even go so far as to call them Macedonian, but you are, after all, Alexander. You’re bound to succeed!"
"Sure thing, just look at your drawings and photographs, Picasso himself doesn`t dance at all near you."
Of course, this was multi-layered irony, but at the time, I didn’t pick up on it. I took my father’s words as a step-by-step guide to action. The first of these steps was to open the familiar red book and go right to the letter P to find the selfsame Picasso deep inside this part. Girl on the Ball was slender, light and elegant, but the portrait of Pablo himself, to put it mildly, puzzled me. His jaw was clenched so firmly, that the nodules seemed to roll and the ears, though were not lop-sided, but divergent as bridges in different directions. A high forehead that sloped like a ski run. His expression was that of a wild leader of some unknown totalitarian sect and was outright scary.
He did not look at me; rather, his eyes drilled into me, trying to dominate my inmost self. Inside me, the last phrases thrown out by my father reverberate: Can’t dance…can’t dance. And then an image rose up before me: I was in kindergarten, a performance, but everything was different. This time, I wasn’t the idiotic bunny rabbit anymore. I was Grandfather Frost!
Everything was just right - the fur coat, boots, gloves, white beard to my navel, wand, Snow Maiden was there (and imagine that - Svetka from the neighboring apartment!), and the bag of gifts over my shoulder. And the string of girls in snowflake costumes and boys - dressed as bunnies, of course - pass in front of me and recite poems, occasionally sing songs, and get the presents for all the good little boys and girls. All the children are like children, and then, suddenly, this balding, overgrown mutant Pablo shows up. He’s also dressed like a rabbit. A giant, fluffy jumpsuit. The ears - so long that they hang down like on a basset hound. He walks up to me, and he holds his hand out. He wants presents, too! He starts to recite verses, but he can’t make it to the fourth line, and he can’t make it through a song, either and, what with him being such a dumb-dumb, I take pity on him, say, "Well, do you know how to do-si-do, at least?" And to the strains of the watchman’s accordion, he begins to step to and fro and weakly twirl about.…
Generally speaking, this seemed to me like in that nursery song, you know, "who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?" This Picasso wasn’t scary at all. Does this seem like some kind of crisis of authority? Um, no, this was just the warm-up. The crisis itself kicked into gear after the "pep talk" about Alexander the Great. The apartment next door was occupied by the granny Vera and her son, a bearded bachelor, who taught history at the University, who at my request talked about the exploits of the great Macedonian at great length and with great enthusiasm. Do you think I sat there in silent adoration? Nothing of the sort. My brain was on fire! Here’s how I saw it: my namesake collected some troops, kicked around with them somewhere in a place called Persia and went to India, and why not? Isn’t that where the Indians come from? To cut to the chase, then he died, and everything fell apart.
"Uncle Vitya, tell me, do they still have works of art older than Alexander?"
"Do you mean created before the age of Alexander the Great and still preserved to the present day?" And for the next half hour he described the reliefs and wall paintings in the Egyptian pyramids and the archaic sculptures of ancient Greece. I was elated, feeling that truth is on our side (which side was "ours" I myself only vaguely understood, but that truth was on our side, of this there was no doubt!), horses, elephants, people, camels ran back and forth around the world, but where are they now? Gone! Meanwhile, when a sculpture gets carved, or an image - painted, if it is good, a museum takes it, and there it will hang like in a fairy tale, happily ever after to the delight of the people.
Childish spontaneity = artfully disguised insolence that continued to move my tongue:
"Uncle Vitya, are you a scientist?"
"Yes I am." (Oh, little did you realize, Uncle Vitya, what I was getting at!) And he began to tell me about how he was studying some kind of ancient coins that our ancient predecessors had buried, and that he was about to finish his monograph, defend his dissertation, become a professor…
"And then what?"
"Well, Sasha, what comes next is the people will read my book…"
"About coins?" I interrupted him.
"Yes, about what I just told you, and the students I’ll teach…"
"They’ll also go off to look for coins?" I hurried him along.
This evidently annoyed the academic:
"Well, we don’t just study coins, we also examine other historical finds, such as combs, the grips on swords, bracelets…"
"Made by artists?"
"Yes, by ancient goldsmiths."
"And so our ancestors were the masters and you study them?!?"
He thought that I had come to appreciate the inner workings of his scholarly investigations, but I was harsh in my assessment:
"Guess what, Uncle Vitya, I’m going to grow up and BECOME AN ANCESTOR, I will paint pictures, make sculptures, write books, and YOU and your stoolents (I called them "stoolents" because they sit on stools and listen to Uncle Vitya) will study me!" and like a grandmaster that has completed a masterful gambit, I turned and made my exit with head held high.
Now turning to the socialist realists and the "artists of the past," as they say, the "question remains open." Meaning my nocturnal voyage to art not only failed to resolve all my questions, it actually left me with even more gray areas. I could not get a grip on any kind of distinct analysis, and comparing the fragments of sensations was a thankless task. To make my way out of this impasse, I used experience of lost cubes. Back in the USSR, we didn’t have puzzles, but we did have wooden blocks with pictures or letters on the sides. Sometimes, one of them would "run off" somewhere, and the picture could not be completed. Likewise with the artists, a picture of my perception of the world on this issue had already begun to emerge, but many parts were still missing, and if I could find my blocks under the sofa or in the box of toys, in this case all I could do was shelve the issue until I find out new details. Around this time (give or take a few months) I was hit by a ray of truth, and on top of this I was inoculated against greed.
??? Say what??! Do tell!!!
Alrright! I will!
I will not describe here the system for distributing consumer goods and creating infrastructure in the Soviet Union, because describing something entails understanding it, and to understand what this was is something nobody has managed, even to the present day! Take books, for example. To buy choice books in Moscow, you had to recycle some twenty kilograms of waste paper, and then stand in line for the books only to end up not buying them because they sold out before you got to the front of the line. These books were hot items in Moscow and Petersburg! There were never enough!! However, if you went to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, you could find them - languishing on the shelves in the local bookstore. Or if some region were careless enough to inadvertently take the lead in the production of prepared meat, therefore the majority of the local people would be forced to eat plain porridge and macaroni until the "victory cup" is passed on to the next winner. But other times they’d go and build a "real Taj Mahal" somewhere or the other, and who knows why? The playground exactly opposite our five-story apartment building was, in fact, just such an example of this form of benevolence. I had something to compare it with. Literally two buildings down there was another so-called "playground" - a piece of dry, trampled ground with two creaky swings, an off-kilter bench with peeling paint, and a few stunted saplings. And this sad little scene was enclosed by a high, flawless metal fence. Our "Wonderland" was another thing altogether, with all sorts of different swings, merry-go-rounds, not just one, but two slides, a sandbox, a fenced playground for ball games with goal posts and basketball boards, a sports wall, horizontal bars, parallel bars, some unclassifiable but absolutely awesome thingy for climbing, and like in any decent wonderland, there was a cave of treasures. You’ve read about Aladdin? Who cares? I mean, are gold, precious stones, rich clothing really what a kid wants? Picture this: a concrete shed - upon which our local troll, who happened to be cross-eyed, and obviously from another fairy tale, had slapped a crooked sign upon it - "storage room." It was full of colorful balls, bowling pins, plastic clubs, jump ropes, green vans and various accoutrements for the sandbox. There was even billiards! - which a little kid like me was expressly forbidden to touch. There was, of course, a guard - granny Stepanovna. This was a person of the "core of iron" breed. Just like in the fairytale, in order to penetrate the barriers to the treasure, you had to know the magic word: "grannyStepanovnaIwantaball".
But the fun really began in the evening when the big kids came out (teenagers aged 15), brought out the checkers or played backgammon with sets that they brought with them. Their nicknames said it all: Eagle Owl, Bonecrusher, Hans. The real "black diamond" in this collection of characters was sunburnt, dark-haired Gyypsy, and I mean with an extended, hardcore "y-y" in his name and pictures of half-naked beauties from the magazines glued onto his guitar. When he showed up, all the boys and girls would drop what they were doing and would move in as close as possible to the benches occupied by the guys. The songs that Gyypsy sang, managing at the same time to smoke and spit through his front teeth - I soaked them up like a sponge and gave them my best rendition at home, always while standing on the stool. My mom was openly not impressed by my vocal experiments and honestly tensed up during them; papa frowned, made a horrible face, but secretly encouraged this folk art. And, for some reason I decided that this gangster music would sound better if it were performed to the tune of a Russian romance. Just picture it: hands extended upwards, palms against my chest, eyes turned upwards, and with all the pathos necessary for the genre, I would belt out…
When I was a kid,
The pants I wore were flared,
And my hat was straw,
In my pocket – my Finnish knife.
I stabbed my mother.
And slapped around my dad.
And sis, though just a schoolgirl
I drowned in the latrine ...
I repeatedly received the belt for the song about Sadko, but sometimes I could be "bribed" by my Uncle Valera to do it when I was at his place, and for the execution of this masterpiece I was invariably given a large fee in the form of three, and sometimes five rubles, so the risk was worth it. Once in a fairy tale on the telly I saw а greybeard with a gusli, and instantly understood the kind of character that would sing this song. Placing the guitar on my knees, I threw up my head like a blind bard, and sang plaintively, drawing out each phrase in a monotone:
For three days it is not appeased,
The ocean rages.
Like a dick in a pussy it hangs
The ship from distant countries.
In the first class cabin
Sadko – rich guest,
and pops them with a nail ... (This was followed by a conglomeration of black humor, swearing and perverted scenes of a sexual nature.)
But along with the "informal poetry" of the Soviet period, I knew and played quite a few good things. My absolute favorite poem at the time was "The Smell of the Trade" by Gianni Rodari. Remember:
Each business has its special scent:
The bakery smells of bread and dough.
The painter smells of pine oil and paint.
The glasscutter smells of glazier’s putty.
The pastry chef smells of nutmeg.
The doctor in his lab coat – what a nice smell of medicine.
Loose earth, the field and meadow
Smells the peasant behind his plow.
And the fisherman smells of his catch and the sea.
The slacker alone emits no smell.
I knew this by heart and never hesitated if I was asked to recite it. For example, when the commission came to the kindergarten, in the best traditions of Soviet ostentation, one of the groups they put together was a demonstrably exemplary team of preschoolers put together to display all the achievements of their educational upbringing. I was the first to perform, and my recitation was enthusiastic, yet true to the genre. Like a rabbi reciting prayers in the synagogue, I rocked rhythmically not back and forth, but from side to side, and I belted out the last line almost like I was overcome with emotion. In general, people liked my style of execution, they smiled and clapped, and I was happy because, because ... well, because I had pleased the audience.
And, really, everything was fine until one day, when my father took me with him to work. He worked as a foreman at a factory that produced rubber products. Back then, Soviet production was generally inefficient, and resulted in a huge amount of waste, and for me this was… simply wonderful. Defective rubber parts were absolutely freaky artifacts, uniformly black, but not at all similar to each other.
The identical parts were, in fact, items such as bushings and seals in cars, dacha hoses, seals for pipes – I didn’t care about those. Honestly. But the castoffs from these parts, well, that was a different story altogether – they were great! Some of them reminded me of abstract sculptures, others, the ones that were burned, looked like meteorites, and then there were those that didn’t look like anything known to man and were like items from an unknown civilization. These throw-aways that nobody wanted, and which, therefore, were completely free goodies were totally far-out, and I totally grooved on them. And best of all, I could have as many as I wanted. And on this wonderful day a "category 11" storm broke out in my brain.
A big workshop. Noisy. There, men I didn’t know are standing around talking to my dad. They’re wearing boiler suits. I am standing nearby. Another man in a suit, white shirt, and tie quickly approaches. He greets everybody, looks at me, raises his head, and looks at dad:
"The new generation."
Then he asks my father a few questions, nods his head, again shakes hands all around, and quickly walks off. I look at him as he departs and realize that he has no smell. I was standing between him and my father while they were talking. He had no scent. My father and the workers smelled like fresh rubber - rubber that had just been fabricated. But this man did not exude a scent. I gingerly took my father aside and asked:
"Dad, who was that man?"
"That’s the director of the plant."
"Dad, is he a slacker?"
My father got a little angry: "Sasha, what are you saying. Look, I’m a foreman here and have a few people under me and I slave away from morning to night, but he manages the entire plant so that everything runs without a hitch."
Next, my father spent a long time telling me all about the plant, other workshops and workers, about the shifts, the laboratory, about the finished product and its shipment.
"And the director oversees all of this, and makes sure everything works out right, do you understand?"
"I get it.” Right??? Yes, I get it! I understand that I’ve been deceived, as they say, brazenly and cynically. You still don’t see what I’m talking about? Okay, then, ‘the fisherman smells of his catch, but the slacker alone emits no smell." But this man, the director, not only wasn’t a slacker, he worked, as it was explained to me, even more than my dad. And I also remembered the women who worked in the accounts department at my mom’s place of work. Some of them smelled like perfume, but there were others who didn’t give off any smell. But they worked, did calculations, and gave people their wages, and so obviously they weren’t slackers, either. Gianni Rodari LIED! That’s a fact. But how could this be? It’s one thing for him to lie, but then these lies are printed in books, and then thousands of boys and girls like me learn these verses and pass them on to everyone. And what really was offensive was that I myself was personally involved in this underhanded propaganda scheme - I also read out these verses to children and to adults, and so it turned out that I, too, was implicated in this deception.
I spent quite awhile at home tearing apart this rotten little book until it was in pieces the size of a postage stamp, and then I went to incinerate these bits on the gas stove. Mom, of course, tried to intervene, but I began to frantically chew up the shreds of paper. When she tried to extract this paper goop from my mouth, this set off an extended, exhausting, full-blown hysterics.
From that time on, whenever I discover some kind of deception, even if it’s minor in terms of scale, I experience something like food poisoning. I've seen in my life posturing truth-seekers, and moralistic truth-tellers, and pseudo-investigative truth-diggers, and patriotic truth-justifiers and gray-bearded lawyerly truth-worshippers, and they nauseated me. And this isn’t nausea like in Sartre where the tips of the fingers are sickened, no, I’m talking about every atom in my body, each electron, choking in its energy wave of vomit, gasps out: quit lying, you scumbags, quit lying! The foulest of them are truth-doers, truth-sculptors, truth-scribblers, truth-cameramen, truth-newscasters, truth-dictators. They are sure that truth can be made, processed like potato chips, packaged and given out to people as free samples at the supermarket.
"So you yourself never lie, you’re like our truth-barometer?" you rightly ask.
"Indeed, no less than others, it’s just when I lie, I feel like on this day in which I am living, I have marked it with a spot. If there are several of these spots, then living through that day becomes as ugly as dining at a table covered with a dirty tablecloth. And, if I lie brilliantly and for business then it’s as if to acquire these stains I have overturned a plate with a rib-eye steak and a bottle of Gran Reserve from Rioja. And if the lie is just for show, to look as good as everyone else, then it’s like a hot-dog with a bottle of beer.
Mutations after being irradiated by the truth would begin to manifest almost immediately. What? What did they look like?
A store. A line. Irritation. At the cashiers…How to say, if I were a linguistically euphemistic jerk, then I would say that stationed at the cash register was a horizontally-oriented woman, as this seems more euphemistic…a seriously horizontally-oriented woman, to such an extent was she horizontal that beyond her there was no visible horizon. But all the achievements of global euphemism are shattered by my clearly enunciated "fuck off." Let me make myself perfectly clear : at the cash register sits a horrifically hippopotamus-like babischa. I’m intimidated, but I stand there and monotonously repeat, "Ma’am, you owe me fiiiive kopecks." "I gave you all your change," barked this loathsome hippopotaminoid at me. I begin to list what I bought and how much money I gave her. "Listen, get going, or I’ll smack you in the face," bellows this 150-kilogram bitch. I am terrified, but I carry on stubbornly repeating,
"Ma’am, you owe me five kopecks." And there’s a line. Everyone stands there pretending like nothing is happening. I struggle with all my might to keep from crying, and just then a man with eyes as sharp as razors and several criminal tattoos ringing his fingers walks up. He looks at this line of docile Soviet "decent people," then fearlessly leans toward this corpulent monster:
"Listen up, you cheap whore, or I’ll give it to you right in that pie-hole of yours. Give the kid five coins on the double."
Her face as she looked at him was like that of a castrated pedophile watching a tender little child, then she picks out a five kopeck coin and is about to toss it at me, but he continues to loom over this boorish mass of flesh, and the coin is carefully placed in the battered change tray. "As for you, little guy," the tattooed one nodded at me, "don’t let the old bag scare you," and he quickly walked off. I stood there, alone…and suddenly I got it: if she says something nasty, I'll step out, I’ll pick up the brick that props open the door, I’ll come back and with all my strength I’ll smash her in the head. This was no longer a mere thought, but a plan of action. The fear had dissipated, and my body felt weightless. I raised my head, ready for any nasty backlash, but I saw before me not the uppity mistress of a minor estate rejecting a humble request made by one of her serfs, rather, I saw a mongrel who’d been kicked in the belly for being insolent and barking too loudly.
"Boy, take the money and go; you’re holding up the line," and this was said in a soft, tired voice without the slightest hint of mockery, not a shadow of bluster. I went outside, sat on a bench, raised my fist, clenched so tightly the fingers were white, up to my face. I unclenched it. On my small sweaty palm lay the five-kopeck coin.
This coin held my great victory, and, although it was attained with the help of another, the joy of acquiring a new feeling: a sense of my personal self-worth and the division of people into screaming abominations, and into the line of the perpetually enduring, abjectly silent majority, and also of people who are not afraid of the former and who will never turn into the latter.
Well, we more or less managed our irradiation by the truth. Now, about the cure for greed: the method is not certified or patented, but it was tested on me, myself. The effect is excellent and there are no contraindications.
In childhood, I was totally in the grip of the greedy toad (such is the image of "greed" in Russia). Several times a day I could be seen with bulging eyes shouting MIIIINNNE!!!! Once, the final argument in a dispute was over a plastic hedgehog which I rammed with all my might into the nose of my opponent - Ignatik. I have no intention of holding a contest between the ugly toys produced in the USSR, but the People’s Choice Award (or, rather, the People’s Choice-for-Dumbest-Ever Award) without a doubt would be given to this hedgehog on wheels. A hedgehog on wheels? Say what? Yep, that’s what! Fixed onto a base with bright orange plastic wheels, a green mutant with blue eyes and a molded hump instead of spines. My question "what for" remained unanswered, no, of course there was a plastic loop there that you had to draw string through, and of course no caretaker of small children would ever provide the string, but the idea was that you would, if you had the string, pull this hedgehog, rattling along, wherever.
But that time the hedgehog did not do any rattling around. Instead, it let out one loud "clap". The blood flowed freely, washing Ignatik’s freckled face. The teacher’s aide hurried up with cottоn and bandages, occasionally flinging withering glances in my direction. Mom, who came to retrieve me from the kindergarten, was calm while listening to the teacher’s account of my conduct and said nothing to me on the way home. But the next morning...I can’t! To this day the memory haunts me! You know how adults tell you when you’re a child that too much candy is bad for you? I had two theories about this:
Either this notion originated from people who didn’t get ANY candy when they were kids, or this is a dark fiction invented by the deeply embedded secret agent, the enemy of all children, James Hook. Moreover, I suggest that the first proposition does not exclude the second. And so the next morning Mom pulled out from her bag a huge bag of candy that just happened to be my favorite - "Sea Pebbles". Then she stationed me at the gate to the kindergarten and forced me to pass them out to everybody coming in, and from her eyes, hard as diamonds, I realized that there was zero tolerance for any fast moves, that any kind of shenanigans involving tears or hysterics were out of the question and I had best simply do as I was told - there was no mistaking her resolve.
In terms of killing the greedy toad in me, it should be said, this was fabulously effective. After I passed out the first hundred grams of sweets the monstrous toad had markedly decreased in size, and after two hundred - its grip on my throat was completely broken. By the time I had finally given away the entire package, she said:
"You ungrateful wretch, Sasha. I chose you, taught you life itself, and this is how you thank me?" And without another word, she took off who knows where...
...Here is where the digression in my narrative ends, and I go back now to when I encountered the fellow with the painted teeth. A couple of months after this event, my parents took me to a "grown-up’s birthday".
After consuming half a dozen little éclairs and a couple of bottles of Baikal soda I was bored. I asked permission and set off to wander around the unfamiliar apartment, all the while running into the drunken guests. Finally I strayed into the bedroom, which also functioned as a library and study.
On the table was a book. Thick. Henri Perruchot - The Life of Van Gogh. "Gogh" is probably something Georgian, but "Van"? Oh, I see, "van" is a number in English. Van, tu, tri, fo, faiv, siks, seven, ait, nain, ten - the most effective response to any sort of "so can you?" True, it’s hard to say what a "siks" was and also whatever an "ait" is was also hard to say, but this is neither here nor there. Then I saw the portrait on the jacket cover, and before I reached any conclusions, I took the book over to Mom to share my observations with her. Mama wasn’t pleased that I had picked up a book that wasn’t mine, but the host, Uncle Oleg, said that it was no big deal and sat me next to him.
"Sasha, do you know who this is?" And I let out how he wore a straw hat (the image on the cover was the self-portrait with the cut-off ear which was concealed by a bandage and fur hat), painted the sun and fence and turned off the billboards.
"Sasha, what kind of nonsense is this? He died a hundred years ago," protested Mom.
Uncle Oleg cast a surprised look at me and set off somewhere. Soon, he was back with another book - an album of reproductions, clearly one of those that might "come in handy." In the Soviet Union good books, especially art books from abroad, were like universal currency. You could exchange them for anything, from delicacies to women’s boots. Needless to say, no one did this, but just in case, people bought these books for a rainy day, and to touch them without the permission of an adult was, at least in our home, forbidden. We slowly paged through the album, and soon we came across one of his self-portraits in a straw hat.
"Well, that’s what I said, and you didn’t believe me," I said triumphantly to my mom.
Uncle Oleg was clearly troubled,
"Well, this is amazing, what a fantastic imagination! BUT HOW DID HE KNOW that Van Gogh ate paint in fits of madness?"
"Sasha, have you seen these pictures before?" asked Uncle Oleg, continuing to page through the album.
"So what do you think about them?" And he showed me the renowned Starry Night. Eddies and whirlpools of stars, powerful waves of hills and small whitecaps of trees in the background, a bush burning in a mad brown-green (that's where he so accurately guessed the color of snot!) in flames, and the small, provincial town, oblivious to what was transpiring outside, drifted off to sleep - in general I liked it.
Then he found Church at Auvers. I looked at it and did not understand how I would get inside because there wasn’t an entrance. I wouldn’t get in, I would simply find myself inside there! I’ll be tossed through the arched windows of the Gothic bell tower, and when I crashed after hitting bottom, it, the church, will melt like a candle and flow in a waxy rivulet down the divided road, split like the forked tongue of a snake.
I did not feel like looking anymore at the album and began to insistently plead that we go home. In the taxi I began to doze, but in my slumber I heard remnants of my parent’s conversation:
"...maybe we should consult a psychiatrist, I just don’t know, the things he comes up with sometimes," I heard my mother’s voice.
"Uh-huh, and he’ll sing that song about Sadko to him" said my father, tipsy, "if you want to, go for it!"
"Well, what should we do?"
"Don’t do anything to him, he’ll be off to school soon, he won’t have time for nonsense..."
Listen, author, what’s up with a new chapter already? Remember? You promised you’d talk about spories! - Hold on, hold on. I’m getting to it.
Okay, I said I’d tell you about them, and I didn’t. I guess I got ahead of myself. The thing is, I don’t really know what they are. However, I can tell you how they work; that is, I can replace the question "what" with the question "how"; would that be okay? Excellent, let’s begin!
To somehow separate them, mark them, I gave them the name "spories" – special memories.
How are they different from "regular" memories? To describe them, I thought up a "feelings editing" program. We’ve all at one time or another shot a video on a camera or a mobile phone. If, later, we transfer this video into a film editing program, then it takes the form of a video track and an audio track. Then you can split them apart, cut a portion out, add effects and another audio track (for example, replace the background noise with music). Our feelings editing program will have five tracks: vision, sound, smell, touch, taste. When you "upload" a memory there - any memory - you know right away how many tracks are activated. For example, a summer walk with your parents in the square: оn your editing table, most likely, you have the vision and sound tracks activated, or when it was cold at grandma’s place, and the gas burners were turned on, then again, two tracks - vision and smell. Sometimes all five tracks can be operating in a single memory. Here’s one from childhood: a celandine poppy bush, I have a vivid memory of the yellow flowers and patterned leaflets, and my mother’s voice: "Don’t go running off!" and the smell of soggy cigarette butts strewn about, and the wet earth, freshened by a recent downpour, and I also remember the snapping of the slender little stalk and licking the droplets of juice, and then that disgusting, long-lasting-when-will-it-stop bitterness in my mouth. And so the principle of the feelings editing program is clear. Do you like it? It’s yours! I spent a lot of time playing with it, and you can use it to remember a lot of things, process them, and the main thing is this doesn’t do any damage to your psyche.
In terms of their structure, spories are radically different from regular memories. Remember the episode with the lilacs at the beginning of this novel? This is difficult to explain, but I can see the over-arching plan, I can zoom in on not just the bunch of lilacs, but also a specific flower and the image (sharpness, color) will be like from a good macro lens. The shabby door into the entrance: I can feel not only the cracks in it, but how the sun warmed it, and even the micro-droplets deposited by a recent sneeze. I can explore the space, drawing back from an object or closing in on it, zooming in and out. And this isn’t a super-fancy camera. This isn’t anything like an "external instrument" for perceiving and recording the world - this is me, myself. Everything contained in spories is what I see, I hear, smell, touch, taste - I really do see, hear, smell, touch, taste them. Are spories real? For me, the answer is a resounding yes because they are connected (how, where, I don’t know) with the outside world. For example, on my travels in Omni Ship, the smells from the kitchen were "layered" into the cosmic picture, and when I scroll through a flight into a cloud of asteroids, then right there I always come across the smell of meat cutlets frying on the stove, and on the planet Vrdyau in the constellation Cygnus the smell of borscht was overpowering, encasing even the stalagnates in the underwater caves.
If people are in a spory, and they are talking, then you can listen to the conversation from any point in the dialogue, returning, if you want to, to the significant moment. This isn’t like the fast-forward on a player, because it happens instantaneously, although again, well, instantaneously is itself a period of time, and there is no time in spories, at least, not our normal comprehension of it. You live, you are, you want something, and you make it happen, but the feeling of another realm of being, an "otherness" is always there. It is unclear where (relative to the object, sound or smell) you really are. It’s also hard to talk about the laws of perspective - who knows where the vanishing point of lines is, color and clarity is not diminished even with distance, and this is true even with the smallest details, so an aerial perspective doesn’t work here at all. "The sounds I need" don’t lose volume when you move toward the source or away from it. You don’t need any extraordinary measures or performance-enhancing drugs to sink into a spory. All you have to do is just remember what happened to you. The only problem is that this completely cuts you out of reality. For how long? It depends on what you need. From approximately a few seconds up to 40 minutes. To the outside world, it’s almost impossible to tell when I’m in one of my spories. In fact, I conducted an experiment: I took along an observer, and we took a walk in the wood. According to him, I behaved normally, didn’t run into anything, answered questions that I was given - a little slowly, but still, adequately, and I could even quite clearly explain the meaning of such words as homonym, habitus, and dreadnought. In short, the wheels in my head were turning almost without a hitch. One major minus is that all this makes you sweat like a stoker on a ship from the southern latitudes at the end of the century before last.
Let`s draw up an interim balance sheet. In response to the question "What is a spory?" I can’t tell you. Questions: "How?" and "Where?" - I’ve described everything that I know, but this is a general outline, these are only a few details of an in internal, still unexplored by me, mechanism. And the main question here is "Why"? Why did I begin writing this book? This isn’t rocket science, you write, the reader, well, reads it, and this is how it goes, but it’s only half the story. There’s also the other, shadowy half of the equation. The fact of the matter is that that for some time I’ve begun to notice "glitches" in the functioning of the spories. I can’t access places that I have visited dozens of times, and in some areas I am losing all of my tactile feedback. That is, the tactile effect isn’t totally gone, but everything is becoming uniformly smooth and warm to the touch, like the inner surface of glass. With smells, the situation is even more complicated. Where before I experienced an olfactory symphony, now what remains is a single scent, or maybe two. It’s like going to the symphony - you expect a real concert, all the musicians are in their places, ready with their sheet music. They play with feeling, but you hear only the oboe and the cello. Moreover, sounds began to disappear, and this is especially evident in dialogues: I can hear one person just fine, but when the other person speaks some words are inaudible, and no matter how many times I scroll through the dialog, the very same words drop out at the very same place.
All in all, when I discovered this outrageous situation, I thought to myself: while the spories are totally unique, they are also precious to me as memories! What lies in store, I don’t know, but what is written with a pen cannot be severed with an ax, and if they become severely corrupted, then at least they will always remain intact on paper and in digital form. And so I laid out all my recorded spories (several thousand manuscript pages, and several of them, the brightest, I’ve compiled in this book. The narrative sequence is in the order of their appearance in my life. The events are what they are - whimsical, inconsistent, but authentic, and now, here we go…
The first year of school passed…although no, not really…it’s more like it crept along, quietly and virtually imperceptibly, only from the first lessons and to this day (when they deliver a heap of documents, for example, a supplementary agreement with the bank that needs signing) the grids, lines, and slashes // used to imprison letters and numbers. Before I started school, I’d study with Mom, but the words then roamed freely against the blank pages, white like éclair cream, of the sheets of the big sketch pads. One and the same letters in different words first were round and bloated, and then shriveled and small, but during handwriting lessons, I had to confine them within the fencing of the pale-blue graph-like or linear corral. And although a heretofore unknown calligraphic prison guard was awakened within me, the rest of my freedom-loving nature instantly suppressed it. My handwriting ability didn’t pass muster. It was blasted like a soldier who stepped on a landmine and will henceforth lie inert.
But the year went by and I left to spend the summer at Grandma and Grandpa’s, in the village. Here’s where I’m supposed to wax poetic about the inimitable natural beauty of southern Russia, but I had no time for it because of Huff.
Huff, my older cousin (of course he has a name, which is Vadik, but everyone, including his parents, often called him Huff), began to introduce me into "society". The young village punks differed from their city counterparts in the cohesion and scale of their implemented "projects". They would stun fish using champagne bottles and carbide, poach unripe apples from kolkhoz gardens sentence unwanted and noxious evil old women to the "fiddler" or to the "knocker" and would carry out the sentence. In the evenings, baked potatoes in the fire and grilled bread, we’d "shoot" slate, and once we "cut a round" (to this day the memory about it makes my palms sweaty and gives me the willies).
Although, wait, here I think I need to elaborate on the subject. Here’s how we made a carbide bomb: first, pour in the water, then stuff burdock leaf on top, and then the carbide. What’s carbide? To a chemist, carbide is a binary carbon compound with metallic and non-metallic elements, but to a Soviet adolescent, it’s freshly-stolen gray "crapola" from the site of the new collective farm poultry house. The crown to this "chemical" wonder - a cork tightly wrapped with wire. After all the tinkering is done, the very bravest (meaning the biggest bad-ass) shook this thingy over his head and with a cry of "get down NOWWWW, guys!!!!" (the shout wasn’t really necessary - all the guys were already doing their best to make themselves one with the earth), he tossed it into the water. Then the carbide in the bottle was mixed with the water, releasing hydrogen and causing an explosion. Next, the "gang" all rushed into the water and harvested the fish in containers prepared for this (Huff and I used sugar sacks).
The "fiddler" and the "knocker" was another matter altogether. The first was more effective and the second was funnier. The "fiddler" was comprised of a thread, needles, a window frame into which this needle was anchored, and some shrubbery, essential for hiding in, and finally a hunk of resin that you had to stroke across the taut string. And of course there was the victim, inside the home, who was supposed to hear these sinister sounds. Sinister is putting it lightly - the sounds were absolutely unbearable spine-tingling, eerie reverberation, in short a concrete audio "horror". The sound was exorbitant, other-worldly, and if you don’t know what’s causing it, then such a panic attack might overtake you, that even the "Arzamas horror" described by Tolstoy seem like a naïve childhood fright.
"The knocker" was similar in design, but operated under an entirely different principle with a very different effect on the "target’s" psyche. It also required a frame into which a needle was anchored. First you tied a short thread through the eye with a nut tied to the other end. Then to this you looped a longer thread (not white, as this will be visible at dusk), which you used to draw the contraption into the nearest shrubbery, and the hunt is on! As I recall, the "knocker" was used to torture "Bugsy" - a nasty older woman (at first I thought that a "bugsy" was a kind of fish, and that the "knocker" was just some thingy that wrapped your fishing tackle around) with bulging, googly eyes vividly reddened by broken blood vessels. You had to know what you were doing this took some skill and you had to test the response of the nut and the thread. The idea was to start with an abrupt, low-key, sort of rattling, done in intervals, and then, pulling the string hard and fast, a more demanding knocking was the idea, and at a longer interval, then short bursts of silence, and so on several times - this is Phase One. At this point an alarmed shadow flashes behind the peaceful, curtained window, and then the "target" is spotted, and finally the first disgruntled exit outside takes place, at which point, of course, no one is to be seen.
Phase Two: the sounds increase in complexity, from the dual "knock-knock," a second of silence, "knock-knock," "knock," "knock-knock," to the complex combination of "knock-knock, knockknockknock", a micro-pause, "knockknockknock-knock, knock". The Second Phase is characterized by the frequent emergence of the "target" outside, craning her neck this way and that, fixing her gaze first one way and then the other, then sitting inert at the window, like a cop on a stake-out, waiting for the little criminals.
Phase Three is preceded by a long 30-40 minute period of silence. Phase Three. The knocking is loud, precise, and intermittent. The algorithm of the knocking is complex and depends entirely on the behavior of the "target" which, at this stage, differs in terms of ingenuity and diversity. What’s important is to use intuition to measure the effect: on the one hand the aim is to lead the "target" to the point of hitting the roof, otherwise all the efforts will be for naught, and on the other hand, you need to cease activity before the "target" figures out what’s going on, and then you can repeat the entire "rattling-the-window-with-the-nut" scenario.
The operation codenamed "Bugsy" was deemed a success by the cadre of slippery malefactors. In Phase Three the "subject" crouched around the corner of the house with a hoe clutched in her hand for a long time, and then, in the end, the experiment was concluded when she dashed into the street screaming "YoudirtylittlefuckingbratsIwillkillyouwithmybarehannndsssyounogoodrottenscum!!!" And then she ripped her absurd polka-dotted jacket off and threw at the ditch.
What made an especially strong impression on me was the "discovery of fire." In the city, fire was tame, enslaved, utilitarian. The even, measured, dull flame of the gas burners and the barely breathing, flickering flame, as if on its last leg, not even good for burning autumn leaves - it’s more like it melted the leaves. A bonfire on the steppe is another thing altogether, greedily consuming thin twigs one after the other the way like a kid eating a bowl of potato chips, but approaching firewood more like a respectable man, dining in a fine restaurant, pacing his way in unhurried fashion, as if to say "what’s the rush? I’ll just take my time." Its deep, healthy inhalation and exhalation is occasionally broken by flashes of what seemed to me like the fire sneezing, and I would want to say "Be well, Mr. Fire," and I really meant "Mr." although back then the required form of address was "comrade."
This wasn’t enough for the village boys, and so they began to fool around with the fire. They’d throw slate into it and jump back, and after the explosion they’d run up to take a look at the embers scattered by the fire’s mangled innards.
We also melted battery plates and made lead weights for fishing rods and they cast "fistloads". And after I "cut" my very first ever round they made me a genuine custom-fit pair of metal knuckles as a material indication of their respect for me.
What do I mean I "cut a round"? In Russian there is a common expression "to cut around," meaning to circumambulate something, go around it, but I empirically derived another meaning from this expression.
It’s evening. A fire, fried bread with charred crust. The last plodding cows together with a tired herder on a horse pass by like the tail of a comet on a summer day. In this smooth evening stew of serenity mixed with glimmering red from the setting sun, scar-faced Fedya added a good handful of trouble into the mixture.
"Alright, who’s up for cutting some rounds?" he asked with a heavy dose of swaggering enthusiasm. Everyone jumped to, as I later realized, so as not to exhibit any fear. They each found a flat stone that was jagged at the edges, put it in the fire and then suddenly lapsed into a momentary silence, hunched, somber, huddling in their internal hidey-hole, and as if each fingering unseen rosary beads that marked the moments of tense expectation. Even the experienced Fedya and bigmouthed Nikita, and also bald-headed Serega were visibly nervous in the haze of the blue smoke of their cheap tobacco, lustily spitting out phlegm.
"Well, let`s start?" Fedya’s voice cut into the space and everybody began to close in around the fire, forming a kind of circle. When all were in place, with each in a spot assigned not by any kind of ticketing, but some kind of order laid out by Lady Luck, he got hold of a long cartridge with scratches all over it.
"Sanek isn’t in the game," Huff shouted out from his place.
"Sanek" (yes, this was me) stood up and joined in. At first I wanted to stand by Huff so that I could take his hand if need be, but some kind of force pushed me forward, and I stood between Nikita and his little brother, Lyovka.
Fedya laid a cartridge on a stone, and after some "hesitation” it spun and fired. For the first time in my life I picked up a nervous tick. It seemed that my whole head was quivering, but in fact it was just my eyelid that was seriously twitching along with part of my cheek. I walked up to Huff and silently, using gestures, asked him for a cigarette. (This wasn’t the first time I smoked - back before starting school Vedya [a complicated derivative of "Benjamin"] walked up to me and asked in an undertone, "Do you know where lice come from?". "From nits," I replied, hesitantly.
"Idiot! Lice come from nerves. They live under the skin on the skull, and when a person gets nervous, they crawl out! And you have to smoke if you don’t want to be nervous! Got it?" and he pulled out two crumpled cigarettes, swiped from his daddy’s pack of smokes. Two girls from our courtyard, Svetka and Marinka, ratted me out then. They saw my mom and said in conspiratorial tones, "Your Sasha is smoking b-b-b-utts behind the garages." And Mama dragged me and Vedya by the ears, away from the garage partition that reeked of piss.
After smoking I tried to say something, but the words were forged with difficulty. All I could get out were a variety of clumsy mumbles, my tongue felt like it was tied in knots or like I was chewing a dead, pulpy mass of unspoken words when I tried to talk, and it took several days for this feeling to completely leave me.
Fire. So free, so changing, so strong - it was imperative that I study it, draw it, in short, derive the maximum amount of information possible over a certain period of time (before my parents came to take me home). But in town I couldn’t do this because, first of all, there was no place for it, and secondly, nothing to put it out with, and third, I wasn’t allowed outside after dark. But this was outlaw territory! Grandpa and Grandma went to bed early, but Huff considered sleeping during the day to be a beneath his dignity, and as for me, I slept my fill by day and then after running around at night I’d head out into the garden with my sketch pads, felt-tips, pastel crayons, and even succeeded in painting some watercolors.
Right there I would take notes as events took their course. The thing is that fires have totally different "anatomies of burning." The variations in thickness and origin of the wood produced variations in the flame, the firing angle, height, depth, color saturation, and even the contrast. My grandfather had a bathhouse and woodshed with a huge collection of woods, so the combination of their shapes and sizes in my fires were sometimes incredible. The fleeting flashes from burning thin dry branches of a walnut and wise gnarls of flame from the old grapevines. I tried to capture, single out from this continuously shifting image a static shape, fix it on paper (maybe it wasn’t even a shape; more like pollination, virtually weightless, misty impressions, and to convey in text the diversity of the flames, their birth and manifestation. Those pieces of dead trees that, crackling, were consumed in my fire, seemed then to be telling me about their life, about the people and animals they had seen, about what they had thought and even dreamed about. Yes, really, dreamed! There was an old, dried, fruitless pear tree, cut down last year, that dreamed about riding a bicycle. And not just around the outskirts, but along the road in the middle of a big city, to plunge into the movement, to become a part of this movement, and it had to be on the bike so that it could fully experience what "slower" and "faster" was, "left" and "right" and then, when every last drop of experience was imbibed to the end, a long zig-zag, screeching and careening every which way.
That fire was composed of thin planks of wood from under the vegetable boxes with a few small birch logs, burning merrily and provocatively, like young horses on a gallop. The drawings that time were far from perfect, but the text was visible, even though simple in form, but with an evident deepening of meaning. The vegetable boxes told of their journey in two parts; about where they grew up, when they were still trees, and then about their travels as vegetable boxes. I was just describing how unpleasant it was for the box when a dirty potato was tossed in it, and how painful and terrifying it was when the dark-gray hands of the loaders threw it into the storeroom, and how one fellow-box fell off and drunken "muzhiks" in coats the color of a stormy black sea went at him for some time, kicking, and kicking him, when a quiet voice from somewhere above and behind asked, "May I take a look?"
I turned around. He was tall and lean. His facial features were thin, fragile, delicate. His ears stuck out in elfish fashion. His face expressed a certain loftiness and intelligence, but seemed also somewhat tortured, as if his thoughts were bit by psychological cockroaches and chewed on like the fingernails of a child suffering from onychophagia.
His query "May I" expressed how hard it was for him to speak familiarly with a stranger, even to one as young as myself.
That he was one of them I immediately understood, I mean, even supposing that he’d climbed over the fence in that bowler hat, unbuttoned long coat and three-piece suit (in the southern summer!), in around 14 seconds he would have had quite the encounter with Baikal, a huge, smart German shepherd. During the day he was chained up, but at night he was let out to guard the property. Anybody who was not designated as okay by grandpa was subject to harassment. He almost never barked if a stranger walked past the fence at night; he just silently ran up, sat down and waited. When their steps were retreating, he ran away, but all the time he was listening and smelling what was up. The fact that Baikal hadn’t come running up told me that this man was okay. But grandfather was hardly likely to have friends like that. It meant that he was one of them.
The edge of his coat brushed the fire, but instead burning and stinking of smoldering fabric, it began to turn transparent, acquiring the deep soft color of an aquamarine gem. I carefully prodded it with my finger, steeling myself for pain, but the material was glassy to the touch, and only a little warm.
"You know, I really like it," he said, speaking to me in a serious, respectful tone, as if I was a grownup, like him. "Write every day and your books will evolve into genuine works of art."
"So I’m going to be a writer?"
"People don’t become writers. Writers simply are who they are. It’s hard to explain it. You just have to feel it. Does it ever happen that words burst through, they don’t fit inside, they tumble about, they prick at you somewhere around your liver or your eyeball, they whirl around, touch on the larynx, press en masse on the diaphragm… do you know this?"
"After I learned how to write I always set out a sheet of paper and a pen before I went to sleep…"
"Because you can’t get to sleep?"
"Well, yes, and so that I don’t miss anything interesting, I drag myself out of sleep and start writing."
"Ah, so you see? There’s no doubt about it, you’re a writer!"
"But you see, I also put out my pencils so that I can draw! Uncle Gogh said that if I ever doubt that I’m an artist he’ll cut off my nose!"
"Who’s saying you’re not an artist?
Who said that you can’t create both books and pictures? Just be sure not to multiply fear, don’t scare the world, don’t let your monsters out, don’t let loose any nightmares, and be sure not to inject any terror into anything. I picked up, scooped out and poured onto paper my deepest and most repulsive clumps of darkness in the hope that they would then be afraid and come to their senses, but people took all my monsters and harnessed them to a chariot that soared of my nightmares, and they began to kill each other with unheard of passion, thirst and frenzy.
No! You must call up from within and release your stars to the outside world, and share, juggle your moons, get hold of and light your multicolored suns so that people become warmer, lighter, more joyous!"
"At the same time, you must be smart enough not cater to anybody and not to kowtow. You must be strong enough not to trade your talent in for cheap detective claptrap and sugary images for sale to rich fools who know nothing about art."
"Do you know that all my life I wanted someone to also walk up to me and say ‘You can do it!’" and he paused, sunk in sad ruminations for some time. And then he again picked up the thread. "And look, this is very important, you need to develop talent with work, you already know this," and here he again smiled, "Uncle Gogh explained it to you. But that’s not all, you need to defend talent! People will tell you ‘not like this, don’t do it that way, you can’t – it’s not done, that’s not going to work out. While you’re still little just agree and nod your head BUT DON’T BELIEVE IT!! Did you see how the poppies grow in the field? A vast sea of grass, solid green, all the blades , like soldiers in formation – that is, they’re all different, of course, but to see these differences you have to look. And then, a poppy, a Red Shirt! Petals splayed out, humming with life, trembling all over, it’s visible over several meters, only it grows in the field, and thrives on life itself, and others look at it, and it’s pleasing to the eye, but life is not like that. But you yourself feel this; for now, just don’t forget it."
"Thank you. But what’s your name? I’m Sasha."
"Call me," he paused for a second, "call me Uncle Franz, and you really ought to call Uncle Van Gogh ‘Vincent’; Van Gogh is his last name, understand?"
"Yes, it is, Uncle Franz, thank you."
"Think nothing of it, but if you find that my advice is useful to you in life, then illustrate my books, since anyway they’ve been published. I think that you’d do a splendid job of it," and he thought for a second, "The diaries, in particular. And you don’t need illustrating my correspondence. Not at all. And don’t believe all the philosophical drivel they churned out about me. I wasn’t writing about such matters." I glanced at the fire and then it hit me. "What about his last name?" But now no one was there, and the fire, which was not completely spent, spewed flying sparks and flashes the color of tropical aqua, outdoing itself by this display.
As for his last name, I didn’t need to worry. It`s difficult to find a language that Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial have not been translated into, and his advice came in handy a lot sooner than I expected.
That year autumn did not come. Instead, she sashayed in, swishing and throwing around her ocher clumps of leaves. She didn’t even throw them really, she squandered them like a drunk sailor in a Moscow restaurant. And if the maple and poplar leaves flew through the air easily and were uncountable, like rubles and 3-ruble notes, then the seven-fingered chestnut leaves fell slowly, ponderously, on purpose as if a tipsy golden-headed mad-cap had pulled out of her enormous thick leather wallet yellow-brown hundred-ruble banknotes and, slapping them down on the pavement-tray of the waiter-boulevard, said with a slight lisp, "P-p-puhleeze t-t-ake it."
This year smelled of changes, and, in fact, was overwhelmed by them - the launch of reformation in the political system, which a young man of 56 years old with, as if, a continent tattooed on his forehead was eager to make happen, a teleconference between journalists from the USA and USSR, coops and joint ventures - the winds of change were blowing from all the nooks and crannies. But the system of "brain-washing", "brain-rinsing", "brain-drying" and other methods of pressure on citizens, even when it`s necessary "brain-smashing" still operated flawlessly, at different settings and speeds, depending on what its function was at any given time. Yes, the "machine" was in continual operating mode everywhere at once: via the television at home, via posters on the streets, and at school there was really no room to breathe - right from first grade they roped you into the "Octobrists in the land of October," and did not release you until you graduated then the army, where you were swarmed with continuous political information; if you entered college, you were fed the history of the All-Union Party of Bolsheviks, and at work you received a steady dose of political education. But sometimes this "mechanism" was recalibrated in response to twists and turns in the Party line, and then you could contrive to look inside this ideological monster, to feel the murky ideological beating of its fiery (a fire that consumers people’s souls) engine, it was enough to locate that point where the system contradicted itself. While a great deal was being said about Stalin’s repressions, and also rarely, cautiously, almost inaudibly, as if the speaker could, just in case, allege he had been misunderstood, and the listener, in turn, could say that wasn’t what he’d heard about - the shooting of the royal family. Obviously in connection with such situation, the teachers were instructed to carry out consciousness-raising activities. We were told about the revolution in Petrograd, about Lenin on the archetypal armored car, about how the sailors took the Winter Palace and did not stealJ anything, and closer to the end of the lesson a sentence, that really caught my attention: "and they shot them all, even the young prince - a mere child, so that he would not come back after many years and demand a return to the throne!"
That was my next point of no return, because if we have the biggest country, the most powerful army, the bravest warriors, the fastest and most powerful aircraft, tanks, and we even have nuclear weapons, WHY are they so afraid of ONE PERSON? And not just that, what if he DIDN’T WANT to come back? These two questions merged into one, purely Russian in nature: WHAT TO DO? I was afraid to think, or, rather, I was afraid I would scream, betray myself. And it could have resulted in trouble for me, but I survived. You see, I had grown very pale, and at recess the teacher sent me to the nurse, who knew as much about medicine, I would say, as I did about hydrogen energy. She said that I was coming down with the flu, and that I had better go home to recuperate. I still remember those thick porthole glasses, the look askance upwards and to the left somewhere, and the end of her sentence, "the flu is going around." And the way she emphasized the word "flu," flinging the "f" out in such a way that droplets of spittle were sent onto my face. But that, too, passed, and I was free, and I had to get to the bottom of what was going on right away. But to get to the bottom, I had to start assessing my situation, get a sense of how things stood. Like a crossword puzzle, I had to solve the vertical axis, and also the horizontal in order to receive this intermediate result.
Looking at the vertical axis of my personal "puzzle", I could see I was in a real "shituation": I couldn’t not go to school, because, not being an idiot I knew that without a diploma in the land of the "soviets" my options for employment were 1) as a yard keeper (which wasn’t an option in the big city), 2) at a collective farm, and 3) as a criminal. Each of these options was out of the question for me. But I also could not go to school, because if they were already lying to me now, then over the nine years that I was slated to sweat out there, they would feed me so much bullshit, that I would not be able to dig my way out of it for the rest of my life. What it came down to is that I had nowhere to turn - around every corner an ambush awaited me, both on the vertical axis and the horizontal, and so I had to make the best out of a bad situation.
Uncle Franz, Uncle Van Gogh, that is, Uncle Vincent existed, they came by, talked to me, and for me this was interesting even though they were strange fellows. But my best friend in those days, Andrusha, after I told him about them, laughed and nicknamed me "crazy-boy," and after I told mom my stories she would turn pale and she got a strange look on her face. I think she was scared, and I also remembered that conversation of hers with dad in the taxi, when she wanted to take me to a psychiatrist.
What a psychiatrist was I didn’t know, but Vanya "The Wreck" quickly enlightened me on this subject. He was a little older than me, had never studied anywhere, a red-headed good-for-nothing with tobacco-stained teeth that were broken in association with petty theft - a typical example of a version of the third career option along the vertical axis. Spitting through his broken teeth he drawled "Psychiatrist? You’re talking about a shrink, and trust me, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. A shrink is a real kick in the teeth, is what! Look at him - he don’t know about no psychiatrist! In short, a psychiatrist that’s this dude, in glasses and a white coat, he looks at you, throws a couple of questions at you, and you and him talk some crap and, well, before you know it he’ll call you a psycho then and have you sent to the psych ward, and you’ll be in there with all the loonies, and you’ll be in there freaking out. A real horror show! They’ll bite you in the night, and you’ll catch rabies! Imagine that! Got it? As for the shrink, I`ll tell you what’s what. The shrink - he’s that nuthouse, the main one, I mean, and in that nuthouse, ya’know?" And he nodded his head with a sense of tremendous self-importance "this fucking nuthouse is not a playground – it’s got itself a high brick wall around it, barred windows, in short, you’re trapped and this shrink will stuff you with pills and you'll be like Vovchik (our local crazy, running around showing off your karate moves with the snot running down your mug, but don’t piss your pants, don’t freak out, you don’t look like an idiot, just don’t blow it: if they hand you over to the shrink, don’t screw around, just say it: I love momma, I love school, there aren't any voices telling me what to do, don’t bust your brain, got it?!"
He slowly drowned his cigarette stub in a frothy puddle of saliva, and like a speed boat casting off in the direction of some tanker vessels emerging into view on the horizon he cut a path toward some "hard working" guys across the yard carrying several three-liter growlers of beer.
Wow. Talk about a revelation. My eyes were opened. Thoughts about my future prospects and the potential consequences of my situation really did seriously shake me up, and I mean seriously! For a few days I skipped school (my parents were at work and I told the school I was sick) while I tried to find a way out of this. A push in the right direction finally came from Sherlock Holmes, as played by Vasily Livanov (who turned out to be the most Sherlockian of the Sherlock Holmes in the history of film.) What got to me was one notion from him about how the head is like an attic. People clutter it up with all sorts of stuff, and then, later, right when you need something really badly, then you can’t find it. I immediately imagined not an attic, but a construction site, where they dump all sorts of different building materials, and do not build anything at all. The fittings rust, the pressboard wrinkles and warps from moisture, the concrete hardens in the concrete mixers. And worst of all are the defective goods! The defective goods are the lies and deceptions that they stuffed in our heads. Whatever I might start to create, if at the very start the materials are shoddy, then everything will fall to pieces, inflicting harm on those who read my books, look at my paintings and photographs (I had no doubts about their future existence!). Even worse, while the teachers with their lies might cripple the inner worlds of just their own pupils, the books and paintings will still pass from one century to the next? NO! That’s not what I want and not what I’m going to do. So what am I going to do? I’m going to go about it like this: I’m NOT going to take from your "rational, good, eternal" what YOU want. Nope. I’m taking what I need and only the exact amount I need to not get booted out of your worthless hole of a waste-of-time institution of "learning". Looking ahead, I must admit that my plan – really worked – except for one time. After a little experimenting, I selected a tactic commonly employed by directors of small to medium-sized enterprises in Russia – don’t show either a credit or a debit – stick to the middle road. Don’t stand out, in other words. Тhen you can have a great life. And I was doing just fine until one day they made us write an essay about the Makovsky painting, "Rendezvous". All my classmates wrote enthusiastically about how hard it was for the boy, how he starved and his mama looks upon him wistfully and feels pity for him. I began by describing the broken jug, the old barrel, and then lightly touched upon the bag and walking stick used by the mother, ending on the frozen feet of the boy. And then I again let flow a verbal panorama on his ragged worker’s smock, moving on to his hands clutched around a hunk of bread, briefly touched on his face (head lowered with closed eyes), and then, finally the last powerful verbal chords were dedicated to the suffering of the mother. When the teacher read my essay to the class, I realized I might be in hot water, but I didn’t fully understand the extent of my blunder. What happened was she (the teacher) took it (the essay) to the director of the school. They sent the essay to the Municipal Department of Education, it placed first in some big competition, and they began to push, pull, prod, mold, in short, try to shape me into their kind of model "Soviet-citizen-in-the-making." I had to carry out a series of measures: break the windows of the school with my slingshot, and not just break them, but let myself be caught in the act; bring my metal knuckles to school and trade them for a Turbo comic (comics from gum were universal currency in any school in the USSR, and so was the exchange rate: two Donald comics were equal to one Turbo comic), and then waited for someone to get smashed in the face with the metal knuckles (of course they would find out right away where the knuckles came from!), start a fire behind the school sheds and explode a homemade firecracker – a can with a mixture of magnesium and manganese in there that I got by trading in the comics that I got in exchange for the metal knuckles (I even had to add a few of my own Donalds, which, funny as it seems now, really hurt me at the time!), which really shot up, so that the glow was visible from all the surrounding houses.
My efforts resulted in a series of calls to my parents summoning them to the school, numerous entries in red in my record book, unbelievable arguments at home, essentially, I have personally experienced what the phrase "art requires sacrifice" is all about and felt its impact on my own nervous system. When I "settled down," I went on helping the history teacher with the history club the system understood its error, they diagnosed me as "a good boy who had strayed" and left me alone until graduation night.
I resolved the issue along the horizontal axis even more simply: to make it easier on my mother, and so that my friends would stop making fun of me, and also to make sure that I wouldn’t have to deal with any psychiatrist and his loonies. I simply stopped talking and began to silently record my thoughts. And, as you see, I had things to record, but here I’m going to branch off a little from my main narrative, because what’s happened is at this point I think I’ve been avoiding something. I describe the tectonics of my personality, its formation, internal links, growth, distinctive features, but without at least a brief description of my family, we risk a serious fuzziness in our picture, because the family is, after all, the soil in which we all spring from and flourish, and the gardener tending our growth gives shape to our outward appearance and also takes care to rid us of parasites. Without a description of the family, this novel will look like a portrait without a finished background, incomplete and awkward, and so at least a few quick strokes are warranted here, which I shall take time right now to add to this canvas.
Father. It’s always hard to write about one’s parents. After all, nobody’s perfect and, on the one hand, I don’t want what you write to offend anyone still alive nor to tarnish the image of those no longer among us, but at the same time I don’t want to stray from the truth or out-and-out lie.
But even after resolving this complex moral dilemma, I stumble upon a too strong discrepancy between his inner and outer life. Outwardly, he was fine, but who really knew what was going on inside? He didn’t let anyone in, he kept to himself. In this era of social networks when everyone strives to display their "uniqueness," strut their stuff like they’re the latest and greatest, it’s hard to imagine being so closed, but that’s just the way it was. Outwardly, he was a chemist by education, worked as a foreman at the plant, was injured (his hand was torn off), then he went through a series of different jobs, drank heavily and died early. That’s it.
GET STUFFED! IT`S STILL NOT ALL ABOUT HIM. GET AWAY FROM ME, YOU, BASTARD OF OBLIVION! I HATE YOU, NASTY BROOK OF LETHE! YOU WANT TO POISON MY SOUL WITH YOUR ROTTEN WATER. NO WAY!
No, in his life there was no ringing of swords, no whistle of enemy buckshot, and his hand did not feel the weight of a dueling pistol. There were no ships with white sails unfurled, and, of course, no dizzying heights and mad dashes. Instead of piasters illuminated by the light of the moon there were filthy three-ruble and five-ruble notes slid through the cashier’s window in the factory payroll office; instead of bottles of Comet champagne, their corks, in the days of Onegin, flying in an aristocratic arc past the crystal chandeliers of the restaurant hall, vodka, drunk in the sandbox in the children’s playground; instead of the fire of battles, the smoke-filled claustrophobia of the "Khruschevka" kitchen and the heat of virulent political rants about the "state of the union" that were shared there. No icebergs and hummocks or deserts or tropical islands or interesting journeys.
His life was not illuminated by the millions of lights emanating from the skyscrapers of New York; he did not experience the tight coziness of the Florentine streets, nor lay eyes upon the simultaneously fat-assed, thin-necked Eiffel Tower on four wide-spread hooves that looks like the freshly-squeezed insides of a black pimple on the face of Paris, just as absurd as the inscription on the pavement near the block of flats: "I (and here she drew a little heart for emphasis) love Dennis! – Katya – underlined, opening parenthesis, "sifa" closing parenthesis. P.S. sorry for giving you the clap!" The symbol of Paris, symbol of Paris, when I hear this I want to pick up a whacker – that’s a fly swatter, only not with a plastic tongue, but one from thick, elastic rubber and slap it across someone’s mug from me personally and from Maupassant, who even drank coffee atop the place so that he might be spared the sight of it. Symbol, you say? And the Louvre? And d'Orsay? And Les Invalides? And, last, but not least, Montmartre? What are they? GOOD-FOR-NOTHING? Well, in our time of total tourism, this may be true, because the Louvre is too big and not suitable for a selfie, but the Eiffel Tower - just perfect - you can be at the top or standing under it and everybody immediately sees where you are… Oh, sorry. I’m getting worked up. Again I digress. Where were we? Ah, yes, my father.
All his life, Dad thought of himself as a communist, but he refused to enroll in the party school, in so doing he didn`t ruin his career, he simply decided not to start it. He regarded himself as a communist, but sometimes he would nod his head significantly and say "Ours will rule, the time has yet to come!"; meanwhile who are "ours" he did not say, not when the USSR was still intact, nor after its collapse, but that those mummified old farts in the Politburo weren’t "ours" was clear. I can tell from some of his "inventions" that he didn’t put any stock whatsoever in the Soviet regime.
In the Soviet Union, they had these guys known as "windbacks". These were people who possessed the qualifications of both a locksmith and electrician of a special class who could adjust the meter so that it began to wind backwards. Most mechanisms were not reliable in terms of not being visible, and if such devices were discovered, depending on the character of the auditors, the owners might have to pull out their wallets, or face harassment from the authorities. Dad came up with a device that was packed into an inconspicuous box made from chipboard that could not only wind the meter backwards, but could also completely stop it from reading at all. The refrigerator, TV, washing machine all worked, all the lamps worked just fine and the arrow on the counter functioned without any hesitation, as alert as a soldier on watch, and the only wire extending from this box was carefully stripped and strapped ... to the plug from the TV! And the main thing - the meter was sealed! I spent a long time trying to fathom what the point was in stealing like that from the authorities? Why risk it? To save money? Not likely. Just plain greed? No hint of greed or her cousins in my father. But once the auditors dropped by and with the demeanor of a humble Soviet citizen, he handed over the book with the readings, and obligingly answered their questions, nodded his head, scurried about, indicating with his entire being that for him the inspectors of supply meters were an authority surpassed, perhaps, only by the Minister of Electricity. After the inspector left, my father stepped out for a beer, quietly set up the wiring again, checked that the counter was running backwards, turned on the television and with an almost tangible and even distinguishable to the taste feeling of personal self-worth he watched as another "GenSec" of the Communist Party of the USSR lauded the achievements of the domestic economy. Now I understand: Well, of course! Both the meter itself and the inspection (I think he was waiting for it, and perhaps this is why he created the device) was the most elegant stick up the ass of all that was then called the USSR.
And his liquor still! There should be a song about it, sounding through hundreds of thousands of hectares of vineyards that have been felled, coupons for vodka, queues, in which people have lost their last semblance of being human. In our neighborhood, the wine and spirits store was housed inside one of the neighboring apartment houses, and I remember how breathless Dima the Badger "caught" me and gasping "come see!" pulled me toward the "likkah store". In fact, there was quite a scene - a few buyers were beating up a "lousy intellectual" they’d pulled out of the line. They beat him for a long time, and with sadistic relish! I particularly remember a woman, not an "alkie," in high heels – she exhibited a particular level of sadism in her zealous attempt to direct her pointy-toed shoes at the head. The ambulance arrived, we ran around and looked on from the other side. They managed to actually save the person; I won’t talk about his mangled face (at least the place where it was supposed to be), but some people stood nearby who were cautiously exchanging remarks, and snippets of their conversation flew like shrapnel through my little, but just the same sensitive heart: "No! It can’t be true!" "I’m not kidding, a shard in the eye." "Did they pull it out?" "Who knows? They really tore into him, he’ll have a black eye at the least." Another was a tender-hearted old woman in a zany pink headscarf who wailed, "Ah, what have you gotten yourself into, you poor dear! Because of this nasty vodka, you’ll be disabled for the rest of your sorry life and will have to be medicated just to get by." And believe me, I was not the only witness to scenes like this - such dramas happened everywhere, from Kaliningrad to Sakhalin.
My father chose a different path. His apparatus was the perfect combination of fire and liquids, with the unappealing wort sloshing inside, hidden from view, while the clear water flowed merrily in a stream of tiny bubbles through the clear tubing to cool the fermenting beverage. The finished product steadily dripped into a large bottle, delighting everyone with its truly brilliant clarity. The fire of the gas burners carefully licked at a large flask, to which was attached a copper coil, burnished to a subtle, yet shiny luster. Everything was done intelligently, precisely, and flawlessly. Dad stared for a long time at what he had created with his own hands, and then said to my mother: "It’s somehow too "dissident" like that. No. I don`t like it," and he pulled out two New Year’s garlands and hung them around the kitchen. Do you think that surrealism is what you see in the pictures of Salvadore Dali? Far from it. What’s surrealistic is when even the measured flames of the gas burner begin to dance in the style of a modern Tecktonik, and the water, forgetting about its inherent colorless properties, continuously tries on new colors, like a giggling airhead would-be fashion diva trying on outfits at a boutique. And it was like even the moonshine was getting drunk on itself. While still preserving its unique transparency, it quaffs multiple colors, and feeling all aglow and happy, it flows through the tubing like a tired, but satisfied stripper hugging the pole with a few hundred dollar bills in her g-string. Moonshine, by definition, is incapable of smiling, but this flowed through the thin hosing and yes, it smiled. It was having a good time. And this was all at a moment in history when in that country, a war against alcohol was being waged by Gorbachev, A.K.A. "Lemonade Joe", and more than half a million people were brought before the courts on charges for distilling liquor. Generally, in the USSR it was hard to find a family not hit by the national curse, and ours was no exception. My father frequently went on a binge, but I can’t call him a typical Soviet drunk - he’d never go so far as to drink cologne, or "Boris Fyodorovich" (Boris Fyodorovich is a substitute for alcohol, also called "Borenka", made from BF glue. (It was made like this: a drill is inserted in the jar with the glue, or if the glue is in a barrel, as in foundries, you use a stick. You rotate the drill mechanically, or manually if you are using the stick, and what happens is the colloid mixture adheres to the rotating mechanism, and what you get at the bottom of the jar or barrel is Boris Fyodorovich, himself.).
Also, he never sought out a "troika" (three people to share the cost of a bottle of alcohol and drink it), preferring to drink alone. His drinking was a way for him to run away not so much from himself, but from some kind of internal catastrophe. The soul of another is a dark and mysterious place that’s for sure. But it is necessary to approach and turn on the light and the breadth and magnitude of the human inner world disappears - instead a mighty edifice you see merely a dusty shack inhabited petty human passions like vicious little dogs.
I think that there was а large, ruined city in father’s inner world. He was clearly erecting some kind of internal empire, planning, searching for solutions, all put together, carefully built brick by brick, of facts…but then a certain inner reasoning or spiritual catastrophe would arise, after which he could not find in himself the strength to rebuild or start anew. His entire life was some kind of running away, confusing traces, avoiding - what? I honestly don’t know. When he wasn’t drinking, he was a real shaker and mover, and could do anything: overtime at the factory, digging up granddad’s kitchen garden like a real shock worker, making various useful things for the household, his job responsibilities were tremendous, but he always remembered all of my projects, even the most outlandish ones and did his best to make them happen…
As they say, a flight of fancy, a flight of fancy - what a tired phrase.
"Why is it tired?"
"Why ask why? It’s sick and tired, and that’s evident! Fantasy should fly, but with most people it virtually never even gets off the ground; it just lies there like a dead load, beginning to decompose, like a mediocre blog, the pictures so heavily edited in Photoshop, that they flicker before the eyes, the film shot by a hand, which trembles like a leaf. Sometimes people even tell themselves, "Well, I’m grown-up now, an adult," and they cut off fantasy’s wings and toss her overboard from their ship of life. I don’t know how to explain it, but Father did everything he could so that I would always be ME. And if he needed to create Omni Ship for this, or use his connections to get me into a popular history club at the pioneer’s home (pioneers were like the Soviet version of cub scouts) or buy me the German electric train set which all the kids in our apartment complex would flock to just like it was a museum attraction, then under his thinking if it had to be done, then that’s all there was to it, and, he set to it, figured it out, and made it happen. And meanwhile, not once was even the slightest amount of pressure put on me. By now you probably think that I was a wunderkind, an Einstein junior, or a ‘Spinozik’. But I assure you that I wasn’t. And I should know. I met enough real wunderkinds in my life, these geeks with their violins, little champions of the math Olympiads who 24-7 spent their time under the whip of their teachers and their parents being crammed full of knowledge and kept away from kids like me who might teach them how to do bad things. And now, these many years later, I put all I have into a cry of gratitude for my mom and dad for giving me a real childhood. I have a hard time remembering all the studios, clubs, groups, where I went from ballroom dancing to jujitsu, from chess to the circle of sport orienteering. They let me get to know the world empirically, using my own senses, and they found the time to take me wherever I wanted to go. What the deal is with the wunderkinds isn’t their problem - it’s the problem of their parents who didn’t get to fulfill their own dreams, and so they want to live their fantasies through their gifted children. I know a man whose parents wanted him to become an outstanding biologist when he was a kid. Instead, though, he chose a career in the law, and years went by, he becomes well-established as a lawyer, and on top of this he has not one, but two children, and yet to this day his mother still tells him how he’s let not only himself down, but also really disappointed her. Sadly, the traces of her pedagogical nagging are obvious to the naked eye, so to speak. For example, when we’re out communing with nature, at the beginning of the night Eugene says that eating meat is inhumane and chases vodka shots with bread and tomatoes. Eventually, stinking drunk, he runs through the woods with an ax, chopping trees, and eviscerates the turf in the clearings with sticks, and when his friends tell him to calm down he answers in a monotone, calm and confident, but crying out "Get the fuck away from me - I’m Homo habilis!"
My parents` upbringing system was like a front garden with clearly delineated borders, i.e., parental prohibitions but whatever manifested naturally, while not encouraged, was also not uprooted. Mom’s approach to me was like that of Duke Richelieu with Odessa: "Let us not impose too many regulations, because we stand on new ground; time itself will reveal the direction our activities shall move in." If we think of our family as a ship with a crew, then my mother was the captain who steered us away from routes rife with dangers, such as reefs and pirates. We did not take part in the regatta dedicated to accumulating worldly goods, but our family’s vessel was steadfast, and this enabled it to weather many troubled waters and storms. Like a true captain, she also took upon herself the jobs that were the hardest, but also that reaped the greatest rewards. With her, everything was always crystal clear and understood. The role of the captain left an imprint on her character, making it authoritarian, but without this trait we, as a family, would not have survived the lean years of the transition.
My sister was young when she got married, but she inherited a spine of steel from my mother and this is why she was able to first develop into a good journalist, and then to become the head of a private local television company. As Pushkin put it, "My uncle has most honest principles." Really? I’m not so sure about that. Regarding "principles," well, my uncle was…a SMUGGLER! No kidding. You probably imagine a night storm on the Black Sea, a longboat with sails knackered and salted sinewy Greeks at the oars, or gentlemen described by Kipling and:
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, Baccy for the Clerk.
Or maybe a flock of sheep with pretty lacework concealed in their wool. Nope, it wasn’t like that. Uncle Valery transported black caviar from Astrakhan to our region. I just ate up the stories (of course, they would send us off on a walk, but the house was private, and so the possibility of being overheard was always there) about back roads and extortion involving cops and thugs. Once they were almost killed, and another time, their car was burned. But there would also be something for his favorite nephew, for example an Elektronika boom box for my birthday that was beyond. And when I broke my hand (doing something absolutely insane - we climbed onto the garages, found some pumpkins and started throwing them at each other. A pumpkin landed on the hand I was using to shield my head with while teetering on the edge of the roof from which I fell, right onto the very same hand.
The doctors concluded that the broken arm was the result of the fall, and the fracture in the bone, apparently, was from the pumpkin), and for several days I wasn’t allowed out. I was bored and down in the dumps, but my aunt came by and cheered me up. I still remember the faded plastic bag from which, with the words "Uncle Valery wants you to have this so that your arm mends more quickly," she pulled out a three-liter jar of black caviar. As an artist, shades of color are very important to me, and I want to note that I experienced a purely transcendental pleasure from the black color, similar to the pleasure I felt when I saw real carbonado diamonds and for the first time laid eyes on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. But a three-liter jar of caviar in all sorts of shades and tints, and, even better, you can eat it with a spoon, without bread, in the most brazen-gourmet-outlandish way - this is really an indescribable feeling, and it’s not because of eating it with a spoon, but because it`s not going to end soon.
And I immediately cut off the hysterical rants of conservationists about how many sturgeons were gutted, how many unborn fish were destroyed. "Ladies and gentlemen, I don`t care about your opinion, because it was really tasty!"
This, of course, is not a description of my family so much as a whimsical alla prima, a first layer. These superficial, wet, strokes of the brush cannot convey the depth and complexity inherent to individuals and relationships. Just the same, it gives you a general idea about my family, right? Okay then, let’s move on.
Moscow . . . how much in this sound
in the heart of a Russian resounds.
This is true, but only to a degree. Moscow is like a woman, like your woman either it`s yes - and the first time you laid eyes on her: she so takes your breath away that you can`t say anything, or it`s no and the rest of your life you’ll be caught up fretting about traffic jams, the high price of housing and the influx of illegal aliens. What happened between me and Moscow - it was YES! And it was so YES, that even to this day this feeling hasn`t left me, so that after a prolonged absence I feel like shouting, "oh yes, yes there was that little intrigue with madcap Venice, and a short affair with cold, level-headed Stockholm, (gender, by the way, isn’t important here, as for me cities are always women) and with Paris, well that was really just by accident - but Moscow, I love only you." The exhibitions and encounters with readers are like the trains of dresses and the aroma of expensive perfumes, they beckon to me and entangle me, and their ingratiating words whisper so in my ears that they even begin to hurt - but I always return to my one and only. Our "affair" began when I was nine, not the most opportune time to begin a relationship, but all the same. Moscow was one of those girls that you dream about, but in order to meet, you have to go to the place where she appeared to you in a dream. I was an unmovable as brake shoes for a train, and my parents’ defenses were down. It was no accident that my parents went to Moscow. In order to live a normal life in the Soviet Union many people had a side-job. Like all those who worked at the collective farm, my mother was allotted a plot of land for her own use. There my parents would grow watermelons, then rent a truck so they could drive to another town and sell them. When they talked about Lvov, Riga, or Kharkov, I didn’t make a fuss about being sent off to the village to stay with grandma and grandpa; but when they said they were going to Moscow, I begged them incessantly to take me with them until they finally gave in. For the first week I didn’t see anything in Moscow but the market, but I knew that she (Moscow) was just tempting me. She was hiding and waiting to see if I would find her. And I DID! Having sold everything, mama flew home and left us, as she put it, to squander a rather large sum of money. So the first day I didn’t have to go the market and read, or feel bored, or have to draw everyone from Uncle Alex to Aunt Sveta, for which I was "paid" in candy or melons, we went to the Lenin Mausoleum. My father was adamant: you’ll be writing essays - it will come in handy.
Morning. The air was fresh, I would even say chilly. Red Square, a slowly moving line of people, all with masks of pitiful solemnity drawn across their faces, the most because suffering from a hangover. Almost everyone had come to carry out a kind of unspoken duty, kind of like an inoculation: although it was little unpleasant at first, but after that everything in Moscow would be fine. And the famous song "And here I go, striding through Moscow" that’s how it was:
"Sometimes everything on earth is going well,
What happened - at first you cannot tell."
And if you would be a typical Soviet citizen from a village or small town, only then did you really understand what happened. And as it happened it was you that did it, you that lived it and you who are free and easy, just like in the song.
"I’m walking ‘round Moscow,
But can still keep on going,
Across the salty Pacific, the tundra and the taiga."
But no son-of-a-bitch chairman of collective farm will say to you, "What are you doing?! You sleazeball! The whole village came together to give you a hand, send you on your way and you made it to Moscow and didn’t go to see Lenin!!!" Count yourself lucky if the chairman isn’t a complete creep and beats you in the face until you’re bloody, or lands you a punch in the gut. But if he’s a true believer in the teachings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, well, you’re doomed.
We also proceeded slowly and quietly, but one glance at lenin’s corpse, that nasty yellowed, waxlike dead body was enough to make me write my own version of events, "ME and LENIN." (From this point forward I will not capitalize this creep’s name. They can spin the legends about him however they want - leader of the proletariat, the founder of Marxism-Leninism, the great philosopher of materialism, but here, on the territory of my text, the wretch’s place is in the shithole, and (and it’s not I who sent him there.)
If you successfully avoid being born in the Soviet Union on April twenty second, then you probably won’t understand this, but I had a special relationship to this freak. Every year my birthday turned into a nightmare of verbal nonsense. Everyone would congratulate me using the same old phrases, saying that we should all be like Lenin and follow his example, especially me, since he and I were born on the same day. But during this barrage of verbal diarrhea one question always managed to surface: HOW? No one ever really explained what kind of example I should take from him. Perhaps I was supposed to instigate a revolution at school? Give a speech on an armored car? Fire one off the Aurora? HOW?
Besides, lenin was the absolute and undisputed authority for them but I was the opposite, but if I behaved well I could be like him. But I never wanted to be like him (I was already thinking in artistic images, and to be similar to this twisted dwarf, this bullshitter with the squinting, cunning eyes?!? No thanks! Besides, they called him "Grandfather Lenin," but crap, what kind of grandfather was he? I had a real grandfather, strong and businesslike, tall and tan from bee-keeping, with missing fingers shot off by the German fascists. But this lenin, this stump with ears, this old fart what really grandfather is he? I really got it, though, the time I bought a "hot" item – a Little Octobrist badge made of luminous red, translucent plastic with a picture of young Ulyanov in the center - this plastic version was something new. While climbing up a tree I accidentally scratched his picture on the bark. Wow! What a scandal that turned out to be! Although the stupid pin cost about ten kopecks, the Pioneer Leader really was worked up over it, and in less than five minutes she made a criminal out of me. It was if I had killed the last cassowary on Earth. And there was Vovchik’s "concert" too! It was quite impossible to see such a show and forget it. Vovchik was the neighborhood crazy, very sociable and non-aggressive, who really entertained youths. From time to time they would get him drunk, and then he would demonstrate his moves, a jumble of karate and acrobatics. But this time the drinking resulted in a verbal attack. Before beginning his demonstration, (which I will attempt to describe in as much detail as possible) Vovchik ran home to fetch a poster of Lenin. Next there followed a real performance: he stood like a boxer with his hands in the air, made several complete turns in place crying "lenin! lenin?," then quickly, "lenin, lenin, lenin," followed by "that convict’s bitch," drawing the last word out very slowly and pronouncing the final "ch" sharply and aggressively, as if he were a samurai. Then there was a short pause, and he began to yell, "lenin, lenin, lenin, the prisoner’s bitch, bitch, bitch." Then he would bow his head and puff out his lips full of spittle, repeating with authority "aha!" After several "ahahs," however, the expression on his face changed from satisfaction to worry. "What, you don’t believe me? Shit, I saw it myself!" (That was followed by a ‘click’ produced by the flick of a filthy fingernail off his dirty front tooth - the last one he had. "He ran around like a little sleazy cockroach, a skinny little guy (a sweeping gesture toward the poster). He was always laying it on about the working class, but they grabbed him and screwed him, that’s right. A worker from the Pavlov plant held him down while another from the Putilov foundry screwed him." There was a long, drawn out pause, followed by a harsh, "But he, the hairless dog, was twitching all over." When he pronounced the "i" in twitching, Vovchik’s Adam’s apple jerked around like a float on a fishing line. I didn’t know what "screwing" was then, but I’ll never forget the image of the tiny, twitching leader in the hands of these huge workers, especially since the scene was acted out by this master of the performing arts. This phantom pain called "lenin" continues, however, to terrorize the Russian people to this very day. The last time it accosted me was when I went to Moscow after finishing my schooling. I had never been to Old Simonov Monastery and decided to take a look at it. As I was returning to the hotel I noticed a street, and the name Lenin Sloboda, and suddenly it hit me: Germans lived in the German Sloboda, Brits in the English Sloboda, in the Khamov Sloboda lived weavers, not Khamy (the Old Russian word for weavers being khamovniki), soldiers resided in the Streletskaya Sloboda, so who is it that lived in the Lenin Sloboda? lenins? And I imagined: lenins crawling out of every crevice, hundreds of lenins, thousands! Some lenins were wearing caps and some were bare-headed, or more correctly bald-headed; lenins and more lenins, lenins in jackets and lenins in coats, with hands outstretched, they crawled, ran, walked, occupying every inch of space up to the horizon. There is not a single drug, clinic or doctor that can cure the Russian people of this obsession until they tear down the Mausoleum and bury his corpse, and the burdock blooms on his grave.
In general the myth about the alleged fact that "lenin lived, lenin is living, and lenin will live on" turned out to be a one more lie, and if in the USSR the lies were usually tightly packed into a bright poster ideological wrapper, in that case it was broken and inside a spoiled old stiff, from which it was evident. Lenin was a TOMB WORM! A little girl had written this appellation in one of the quizzes at the station of young naturalists to describe a huge tapeworm. TOMB WORM you can’t find a better expression for him. Forgive me if I digress here, but the station of young naturalists was yet another cultivator of Soviet idiotism. Rare animals, which couldn’t be found even in large zoos, exotic birds led by squawking peacocks soiled by their own feces, tropical fish in long aquariums - all of this cost a lot of money, but they never bothered to put up a normal fence. The "captives" ran away rather often, that`s why the people living across from the park had already stopped being surprised by the lama with the sad eyes grazing peacefully, as if it were free, in the flower garden, or by some kind of rare duck with an acidic green nose. Once Oganez, the butcher from a neighboring market, caught an escaped kangaroo. He waited for a vet to arrive, but the vet never came, so they loaded the kangaroo in a passing "Bobby" literally placing him under arrest. But the problem was that Mityunya, an eternal boozer who was always ready to get into drunken brawls, was sitting in the cop car. But what kind of problem was that, really? To get into a real russian brawl, one need to be a "body-builder", but Mityunya didn`t build his body, but rather destroyed it and what on a scale of 1 to 10, he was something like a - 5. They might kick him a little in the butt, or whack him on the back of the head. But if you saw him walking around with a shiner on his face or his nose broken, then it was clear that he had been drinking in a different part of town, where he wasn’t known, or else he had tangled with someone just passing through. When they threw the kangaroo in next to him, Mityunya began yelling at the top of his lungs about human rights, that putting him in a cage with wild animals was not permitted. But the rights of both man and animal were quickly made equal by a burly sergeant. He grabbed a "democratizator" out of the cab, walked once around it, and then, with a single exact jab, as if with a fencing foil, poked Mityunya in the teeth. Mityunya howled like a Chinese pyrotechnic rocket on takeoff, and just like that his rights and freedoms were brought under control. But the most amazing thing was that Mityunya’s haggard face with its high cheek-bones was astonishingly similar to the frightened kangaroo’s mug. People just died of laughter when a merry student began running around the car like one of those commentators in an Indian film chanting, "Look, friends, although they were separated at birth by some scoundrel named Kapur, brother has found brother. Many years of hardship and sadness turned one into a kangaroo and the other into Mityunya. But time went by, and justice prevails. And now, thanks to Darwin, in one case, and in the other the drunk tank, soon a reformed, highly organized individual will be made part of our society to the great benefit not only of our great country, but also of all our working people. Hurray comrades!" But the Mityunya and kangaroo, that was just a freak of nature, one more stroke across the portrait of the Soviet Union. But now I’ll get back to the "marbledrop". If bodies discovered after snow melts are called "snowdrops", then because I found him in a mausoleum, and the mausoleum was made of marble, then this must mean he is a "marbledrop". We successfully cleared this hurdle, and Moscow began giving herself to us, generously and without false modesty. We made a few zigzags along her summery streets and wound up, of course at my request, at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Saying that it merely interested me would be like describing a nuclear explosion in words like "an amazing, bright little mushroom appeared on the horizon." I was simply overcome, delirious, wandering through this place. I felt like a king at a feast with an endless succession of dishes prepared from visual manifestations of human culture. Aged (like wine) Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi with mummies; ancient Babylonian, cuneiform tablets; Trojan gold from Schlieman’s digs; red-figure, Greek amphora gave way, as if directed by some invisible hand, to canvasses by Italian masters of different periods such as Titian, Veronese, Bronzino, Guercino, Tiepolo, and Canaletto. When I returned to my hotel in the evening I dropped off to sleep immediately, but in my dream I returned to those expansive halls and to the fluttering canvasses of Botticelli’s Archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she was blessed of all women, and to Pentefriy’s wife by Guido Reni which like a tenacious bitch, clutched the cloak of noble Joseph.
And in the morning, when I awoke, before my eyes the works of Flemish masters like Rubens, Van Dyke, Jordaens and Snyders replaced the German Kranakh and the Spaniard Surbaran. I practically ran from hall to hall, lightly grazing each of the canvasses with my gaze, sometimes stopping, thunderstruck, in front of one or another. I tried to sketch everything, one after the other, but they looked like some kind of unrecognizable, senseless, semiabstract scribblings. It was impossible not only to simply take in and absorb all of this, but even to simply mentally nibble on it. I have to give my father his due, though, as he was a person quite unacquainted with the fine arts, but all the same, during our visits he took it all rather calmly. He just bought himself a flat, little pocket flask. Before going out he would fill it with fire water and stuff his pockets with taffy. Then, father would walk around with me, from time to time taking a nip from the flask, and quietly gaze at the masterpieces. Even the old museum keepers began to recognize us. The time before our departure was quickly diminishing, and that invisible "guide" through this feast for my eyes kept snapping his fingers, and as if on a magic tablecloth, there appeared an unending series of canvasses, and not just canvasses, but originals by Delacroix, Goya, Corot, Ingres, and Courbet. Believe me, it didn’t matter to me then, nor does it now, how much this was all worth. Only dozens of my hurried steps separated the centuries, the emotions and twists and turns of the artists’ brushes; those artists who populated these centuries now stood before me without any paper intermediary no reproduction in some book were these! But the sculptures! The sensation from Michelangelo’s David, (of course it was a copy, but nevertheless, a magnificent, full-sized one,) the first meeting of glances, and you already have to restrain yourself from yelling that it wasn’t you who was spying on Olya, your sister’s friend in the shower; and that it really wasn’t you who tore the pages with failing grades out of your report card; and that you absolutely weren’t the one who tied strings to door handles and then rang them.
But when I saw the impressionists, I felt like the dumb little boy in the anecdote about the golden fish who granted him three wishes. The boy wished that three thousand varicolored rhinoceri would run by him three times. When the stupefied fish asked him why he didn’t wish to become a normal boy, or for a beautiful wife or unimaginable wealth, then you know what he answer? "What, I could do that?" And really, how could Degas paint his dancers that way? I felt as if I was actually among them, the sharp creases of their dresses pressing up against my cheeks; the smell of sweat and perfume so stuck in my throat that I almost became ill. And Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral? There is a tired cliché firmly attached to this picture, "ah, such a delicate rendering of sunlight." But no one, not a single art historian ever figured out that the sun had decided to drown us in its light. Its endless spies, these little specks of light, had opened all the Kingston valves on planet Earth; Rouen Cathedral was the last barrier holding back this onslaught. Of course it won’t stand for long, streams of sunlight have already poured over its facade, and soon? Soon! We will all drown in the unbearable, magnificent sunlight.
And Renoir’s portrait of the actress Jeanne Samary? Looking at this portrait is like eating a huge aluminum pan of freshly made, strawberry jam: no matter how slowly, but continuously you scrape the little spoonfuls of froth off the top, and you end up stuffing yourself and walking around with little red blotches all over your flesh. This occurs, by the way, every summer, even though you can’t understand how, since you HATE STRAWBERRY JAM! The still unconquered by me, post-impressionist mainland lies ahead, as well as the archipelago of fauvism, from which calmly flowed Matisse’s colorful, flat-figured works. Although I couldn’t look at anymore without overthinking about it, I also couldn’t stop, only cry inwardly, "enough, enough!" I felt that the gold of these canvases might turn to shards. It didn’t, of course, (but in my mind, understandably,) the light dimmed when I ran up against the cultural cosmos of the Tretyakov Gallery. That enigmatic Russian soul. It’s impossible to unlock its secret a priori, like inventing a perpetual-motion machine. Even if you really feel like trying, it’s not even worth it without the three epic Bogatyr heroes, or the boyar Morozova, the golden autumn, or the rooks have returned; without Ivan the Terrible, killing his son, or Shishkin’s bears (who were actually painted by Savitsky! as I said - enigmatic!); this protruding stone masonry, constructed straight as a corkscrew without all of them you should not even start. But you need to see them as if when you want to speak about Italy: no matter about Fellini’s films or Virgil’s poetry, you must experience, if only for a little while, living in Rome, even if it’s on one of those awful guided tours - "look to the left, look to the right." Nevertheless, the eternal city’s pollen will settle into your heart, and by force of mind it will form into a special prism through which all facets of meanings, which have been laid down for thousands of years, will be seen.
There are visual keys that, without which, one cannot open the doors to another culture. Honestly, I tried to understand Chinese philosophy, what the Mohists and Confucians were arguing about, until finally an intelligent man said to me, "But have you seen the Great Wall in real life? If you haven’t, then forget about everything you’ve read, go to see it, and then begin your study."
I haven’t yet made it to China, but his statement is true for Russia too: if you haven’t been inside the Kremlin’s Uspensky Cathedral or wandered along the snowy paths of Kolomenskoye Park, if you haven’t seen the spiral domes of Saint Basil’s or visited the Tretyakov Gallery, then forget about everything you’ve heard or read about Russia. The Tretyakov Gallery is Kilometer Zero for Russian visual art. The armor-piercing cartridges of the canvasses of Repin, Shishkin, Ivanov, Bryullov, Surikov, Vasnetsov, Kramskoy, Vrubel, Levitan and Nesterov are always battle-ready. These weapons defend the whole territory of art from occupation by Dushanov’s mustached Mona Lisas; The Chapman brothers’ dicknosed figures; de Kooning’s malformed, nerve-racking women; from the cluttering of art space in the style of Arte Povera, from stuffing it with identical cans of Warhol soup and sprinkling it with millions of Weiwei’s porcelain seeds.
But the most transcendent space was the hall of Russian icons. My descriptions of this hall are only a some alloy, a layering of impressions I received during my intermittent trips there. The first thing that you feel a clear awareness that this is wrong place for icons. The pictures from other halls feel great, they hang there carefully restored and varnished: the artists who painted them wanted just such a fate for them". These works haven`t become captives of oblivion forgotten in some dusty attic, or left to rot in some half-ruined despot’s damp castle. Even when fascist bombs destroyed Dresden Gallery, snuffing out the life of Andrea Mantegna’s Paduan frescos, the largest and most valued masterpieces of the Tretyakov Gallery simply waited out the Second World War, having been evacuated to the rear in Novosibirsk.
But this was not the case with the icons. They were brought to the Gallery, which saved them from death. They fled the churches that had been destroyed, burnt to the ground and humiliated, the houses in which their masters had been executed, to take cover under the museum’s vaults. If religion was called the opium of the masses in the Soviet Union, then icons were considered the syringes that injected this opium into one’s consciousness, the priests were the men who injected it, and the churches were where the injections took place. And if, a century later, we may speak with crippling pain in our hearts about the tens of thousands of murdered clergy, and the tens of thousands of churches and bell towers destroyed, (to be more precise, I should use the word "approximately" here, but to do so would mean that I, like historians, regard the death of these people and churches as general statistics. I'm an artist, though, and I try to see the personal tragedy in each loss), no one can ever say how many icons perished. These innocent victims, they were burned in bonfires and tortured by drafts in cold basements. Those that survived had to endure the shame of being labeled "primitive" and "folkloric". For seventy years it was forbidden to speak about their real meaning, and yet, they survived. Reviled and meek, like the first Christian martyrs, they knew that their light would grow, their significance would be discovered, and that everything would be fine.
In the museum hall where they pass their time there is a constant sense of otherness. Yes, they are warm and dry there, protected from vandals and the burning rays of the sun. But they were born and for hundreds of years lived under the small golden domes of Russian churches, surrounded by measured, dispassionate monastic singing, washed by waves of incense smoke. They were created for the purpose of prayer, and not for contemplation or immersion in their space, but so that the images inscribed on them with a small bit of uncreated light enter into your inner world. It is impossible to comprehend them in the classical, ordered traversal of museum halls, the way one literally drinks in the images. You must stand before them in patient, silent expectation until they address you. But inside all this hurry-scurry of the museum, the indistinct clamor of many voices from the medley of humanity within the museum, the mumbling of the audio pieces, and the unending clicking of photographic schizos, this will never happen.
But the forms! HOW? How does one describe the Deisus Tier, where each figure stands twice the height of a man, on a separate, powerful wooden panel? From a rhythmical and compositional point of view, the cliché "brilliant" characterizes it only formally. It is beyond-logic, beyond-rhythm, unrepeatable, joyous apprehension, unpronounceable, other-worldly beautiful.
And the colors! Calling the vermilion ‘red’, or the azurite ‘light blue’ would be like calling the emperor’s large crown made of gold, silver, pearls and almost five thousand diamonds, with a very rare, four hundred karat spinel at the top simply a cap and the long quilted ermine coronation cloak of golden velvet - an ordinary raincoat. Once you have seen these images they will remain in your memory forever. Can a person convey their magnificence in a photograph? It’s possible, but that would be like a second-rate, Harlem rapper attempting to rap out a version of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Ancient Russian iconography is, without a doubt, a Wonder of the World, in the center of which shines the prime light: Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity. - Is it a miracle? - you may ask, but a depiction of the appearance of three angels to Abraham in the Old Testament could be seen in the catacombs of Via Latina already in the fourth century. But venerable Andrei painted his Holy Trinity only at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
For now I’ll keep silent, but I have one question: what, actually, is this icon all about? In the Old Testament, Ch. 18, verse 1 we read: "The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, ‘My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 9 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son . . .’
It was so, wasn`t it? – Yes. But that raises a little, and yet so big question: Where is Abraham? Where’s Sara? Where’s the calf? They’re not there? But who is in their place? YOU! You look at three silent figures and hear, HEAR! Do you hear it?
Hear (of course you don’t hear it, because you’re looking at a reproduction) the silent, internal polylogue within the triune God. This isn’t a story about Abraham’s hospitality! No! This is called the Council of the Trinitarian God, or the Creator’s Pause, that interval, that point, that moment when the entire world is created - with the exception of man. What is this voiceless conversation about, you ask?
We will create.
We will create.
We will create.
And he will be.
And if he will be, and he will be free, that means that his freedom, his freedom of choice it is the place we will not enter unbidden.
So it is.
But with this freedom he will fall from grace and will allow into his life - death.
That’s up to him to decide.
And then there will be wars.
Which will be stoned to death for telling the truth.
But it will remain in the hearts of the faithful.
And death?! In order to conquer death I will have to humble myself to human nature and become man, God incarnate, indivisible, inseparable, unchanging and subject to DEATH! And descend to hell.
You’re not asking why? Of course, you and I are one, therefore you know very well that real love does not ask why. And RISE FROM THE DEAD. And return heaven to them.
To all those who, by their own free will, want to be there, for I will be in heaven. And there will be some on earth who will neither listen to me in their hearts, nor see my will in any manifestations of this world; who will even build towers of Babel of their evidence against me, rejecting the very possibility of the triune being, not realizing that this being does not require any kind of proof.
If we create him, then an inherent part of him will be life in the length of eternity.
But the quality of the eternity will depend upon how one spends one’s life.
So be it!
And he must determine where he will spend his eternity, being in time, - no one has yet to bear this responsibility.
But no one has ever been given so many privileges.
In freedom he will become great!
And I will love him and they will love each other.
He will be!
He will be different.
However he wants.
Indifferent and lukewarm.
And having overcome time and space by strength of mind, man will see, hear, will understand our triune counsel and paint an icon about it.
And will we allow him to?
We will allow him!
And we will allow him.
And there will be him, for whom this icon becomes part of life, and through this image he will hear the echo of our polylogue and describe it - imperfectly, inexactly, but without prevarication.
And there will be the person who is reading his book right now, and that other, ineffable multidirectional thought about his unique freedom already born and begins to live, and he will think it.
He will think!
We will create him.
Will we create him?
We will create him!
And what else happened with me in Moscow...it was a house. Built in the Moorish Revival style, the mansion, a five-minute walk from the Kremlin and kitty-corner from the old Arbat, where Pushkin and Tolstoy lived, and beholding it, you could drink in the nineteenth-century unadulterated, there it stood, proud contrary. It was like a Tchaikovsky concert, where everything is still and poised - the conductor, the concert, surely the super-stylish white piano, the violins and other "inhabitants" of the orchestra pit. The slightest movement of the conductor’s wand brings the entire musical squad, following obediently, to life. It’s quiet in the hall, attentive waiting eyes and of course ears of the concert-goers and suddenly a man "flies" into the hall, strums a few flamenco chords, (not the kind of pop or MP3 - the cheap substitutes that play over earphones, but a real music, the kind that moves you and makes you move, the kind you might inadvertently catch at a night bar in the old town of Salamanca,) and runs out. From the very beginning Moscow society was against the construction of this mansion. Even Arseny Morozov’s mother, who was as kooky as her house, said, "If before, I was the only one who knew that you’re a fool, well now all of Moscow‘s about to find out!" The towers, the huge shells covering the facade, the columns twisted as tightly as a real Russian character - this was all too much for late, nineteenth-century patriarchal Moscow.
It’s as if all this happened a hundred year ago when, while walking around Moscow, I went up to this house.
"Give it a touch!" I couldn’t get it out of my head, it was, like a piece of candy stuck in the teeth. "Touch it," my entire being cried, "especially to the left," something unbearable buzzed inside of me - "but only from top to bottom, as high as you can reach, run your hand down it." There was a metal taste that burnt the roof of my mouth. These weren’t even voices, but some kind of tiny bits of knowledge. "Do it, do it, you’ll see!" So I ran up to it, jumped, and ran my hand down the column as I squatted next to it. I will now describe what happened next, but I’m not sure it will be clear. A piece of the faсade fell off and vanished into thin air, as if it were made not of brick, but something drawn in chalk on a blackboard that I had wiped off with a wet rag. Some kind of boundary remained, insurmountable, even though it was invisible and weightless. A boundary between what?
Between Moscow and Demiurgia. I didn’t understand what was happening, but as soon as my glance "fell" on something, I immediately snatched a piece of information, (or rather I did not even snatch it - it was given to me as a bonus). This information didn’t explain anything, it was just one of the conditions, like in a problem at school. So in this case, I just had to accept that there is a boundary that I could not cross, but it was open so that I could see the "other" side. There are a few …creatures there. I clearly remember a huge scaly . . . being (each scale was about the diameter of a man’s watch,) whose body and wide-branching antlers resembled those of a noble buck; it had tough, long turquoise-colored feathers for flying on its powerful wings.
When I glanced at the scales it was as if I felt them, was touching them. They were silver and warm, like a brick roof heated all day in the village sun. It was a tactile sensation, but one I felt not with the tips of my fingers, or by touching with my hand, but with my entire body, as if I had taken off my clothes and laid down on it. It was serpinton. I knew right away that it was serpinton, but serpinton isn’t a name, its name was - Poshkivan, while serpinton... I didn’t yet have an answer to that one. There was also Dideric. No, Dideric, that indeed is a name. Dideric looked like a white centaur. He had a white horse’s body with the upper torso of a graying man of forty to forty five, not a frail man, but also not pumped up like a muscle man, a massive fish tail, a powerful neck, and about a one-foot winding horn stuck out of his forehead. And then there was Ulisha - baku. No, Ulisha wasn’t from Baku.2 Ulisha himself was baku. Who is baku? Baku is a miniature, long-haired, I would even say shaggy bright brown elephant, with a thin trunk and flattened-in side. For nourishment, besides water and food, he needed (as a human needs vitamins, micro-elements and mineral) dreams sacrificed willingly by other creatures. The information about these dreams appeared in my mind like some necessary commentary, like the thick owner’s manual one receives with the purchase of a new car, a necessary comment which appeared immediately, inseparable from what I was seeing. There were still a few other of these creatures, (I remembered them later,) but the most important for me was grikan Vaii. Vaii is a name, but a grikan is half griffon, half rabikan. A griffon is half eagle, half lion, but rabikan is a large, dazzling, very fast horse.
He was quite spectacular looking. Imagine – the body of an Arabian jumper, with huge wings tightly fixed to his sides, with the rear feet of a lion, springing as he walked, and a tail with a tassel on the end. On the other hand, he strode heavily on his front, bird-like paws, as if he were putting all of his weight into each step. Although he had the head of an eagle, he had a horse’s neck. He didn’t, therefore, twist his neck around, only gracefully turn when necessary. In sunlight he appeared fiery red, but in overcast weather he seemed almost carroty. When he walked at a normal pace, occasionally sparkles escaped from under his paws. But when he ran it was if Bengal light went off under his feet; when he flew, he sparkled from the tips of his claws to his powerful beak. The feathers on his strong wings spanning almost five meters would change color in flight, from amber ochre to red-orange cadmium - a shower of sparks, a firework of warm colors - this is what flying Grikan looked like. But once again, I never saw him either in flight or running, I simply knew that this was so. Exactly. Without question. Just exactly so. At that point I still didn’t realize that I would meet the characters of my books on the street, or that they would drop in on me, catching me in a rather awkward position: they would even come by my studio while I was working on a painting or sculpture, which I didn’t allow anyone to do. But when you consider that these weren’t always people, then the "curiosity" of the situation grows exponentially. At that time there was a whole lot I had yet to discover.
The art school. From the beginning to the scandal.
A few years passed after that trip to Moscow, during which I copied, as best I could, works by the old masters, drew, and sometimes photographed everything, one after the other. I felt very "together" and in control, until one day, in a passing conversation, my mother asked why I didn’t want to go to art school. I DON’T WANT TO GO? I had just never thought about it. My interest was sparked, and then it really caught on fire, and the issue was kept alight until, a few days later (in order to regulate my inner thermostat,) mama and I brought my albums and drawings to the kingdom of easels, palettes, and brushes. The teacher leafed quickly through my drawings, nodded his head and mumbled, "It will do." Mama asked whether it was worth it for me to study, and he replied that with a little study I could "make something of myself." After that I went there almost every day and together with other children of my age, I studied how to draw "correctly." Everyone has those days when everything comes up roses, when things just fall into place without any special effort. The teacher asked us to bring to class a drawing of our street, and mine turned out to be the best; that day I also finished my assignment in class flawlessly. Once again I was praised and made an example of. Then the teacher told us about socialist realism, and I again distinguished myself by naming the greatest number of Soviet artists. That evening the seniors were playing soccer in the school yard when one of the teams needed a goalie. I stood up, and at a particularly dangerous moment in the last minutes of the game, I ran out from the goal post and grabbed the ball, thereby maintaining our winning score, although I paid for this with a blow to gut.
What it comes down to is that on that day I could do nothing wrong. I was all over the place, and every things I tried to do turned out great. At home I talked about my successes in the most vivid colors (and yes, there was also that poem I recited at school - a solid "A" for that, real luck!), and with the conviction that if today was so stupendous then tomorrow would be....so great, that I felt short of breath just thinking about it, and so I just went to bed.
Tomorrow came much quicker than I thought. I jerked awake in the middle of the night in state of anxiety. Looming over me was a broken nose, high forehead, and expressive deep-set eyes, full of righteous anger. "Look," he said loudly and pointed to where the moon, caught behind the curtain, spilled its lunar glow across the floor. From the largest pool of that light squared by the window opening, a jungle flooded, and not just any jungle from the Amazon rain forest or equatorial Africa. This was unbelievable grass taller than a man, and flowers the size of an elephant's head in a huge palette of colors. Then instead of this jungle low cliffs ridged, and two lions, one black and the other with a sword in his paw tried to impress vicious predators, and yet they were no more threatening than the giraffe walking beside them - which was white with round, black spots like a cheetah. But they, too, dissolved into a huge pile of flowers of various colors and shapes. Some were in full bloom while others grew on the spot. Their stems snaked and intertwined, and the buds blossomed in continuous movement. And in this floral realm, roses were merely modest maidens, commoners contrasted with the colorful kings, vibrant princes, multicolored counts - buttercups, poppies, peonies and asters. They "exuded life," their growth was uncontrollable, urgent and intemperate. At one moment they were interwoven into huge garlands, and then in a flash, one after the other they raised their lush flowery heads.
Impossible, unbelievable, unthinkable, but it all happened in my room, which was actually a segment of the living room fenced off by a false wall put up by the masterful hands of my father. What other jungles, what other mountains?.. I gave my friends expensive model airplanes away because there was no place for them, and here now - these lions, giraffes... For a split second I dropped out of the unreal, but then that same hard, confident voice put me back there: "Do you recognize… "
Well, of course! This was a long face with a stylishly disheveled little beard, he looked like the captain of a pirate ship, who after successful pillaging paid his taxes and bribes, and invested in some respectable outfit like Banco di San Giorgio and thus, after gaining some legitimacy, in a few years had become a respected citizen of the city. His portrait in my birthday book on the history of the Renaissance was alongside fragments of paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his Pieta, and Moses and the story about him as one of the greatest masters of the Renaissance.
He cut short my enthusiastic aspiration with the words: "Not me, blockhead, do you recognize them?"
The riot of colors vanished, and the room was suddenly populated with several other people: a compact mustached man, a plain-faced woman in Ukrainian peasant clothes and a Georgian with a stylish wide mustache that spilled over into a small beard, more rounded than a goatee.
"Well, now do you understand why I came to you, and brought along these people?" he asked continued to press me.
I started to say something, or rather, I tried to say something, or rather, I uttered faint illegible phrases, trying to find out what he wanted from me, but I failed.
"What say? Speak up now! An artist must think quickly, respond clearly or at least a witty repartee will do."
"I'm here about your studies. Do you know who my first teacher was?"
"Um, that …"
"Not that, we're talking about Domenico Ghirlandaio, blockhead, GENIUS DOMENICO GHIRLANDAIO, although ... - and he waved his hand in my direction... as if done with me, enough! - "And the Lorenzo school of art - everyone there was somebody special. There, everybody talked with each other, and pollinated each other with knowledge, but this one (nodded his head with a look that clearly indicated that THIS could be only - Leonardo Da Vinci) was taught by Andrea Verrocchio.
"Well, I know that he is the one who made the statue of condottiere."
He sighed with relief, "Well, at least he knows something, and I thought that he was thick as a brick. So, it was through his workshop that not only the master Leonardo passed, and but also Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino, okay?"
I smiled and nodded, because I had already seen the works from the workshop of Perugino and paintings of Botticelli in the original. I was ready to show off my knowledge, but my words were drowned out in the wave of his cry: "What do you understand, if your art teacher who tells you how to paint, he is a loser, he is a mediocrity, who has never made a single individual stroke without referring to outside authorities and influences. An artist must think, but he stopped at the age of seven. He took for granted everything he was told and considered it absolutely true. And his wife left him because she married a genius and was willing to suffer, even those big cars should roll over his canvases - what are they called…? bulldozers! and persecution, she even exile, if it came to that. But putting up with little moral monsters that need paintings like a drowning man needs a millstone, whose parents pushed them into art school so that they wouldn't waste time hanging out on the streets, and who will later recall these lessons as no more than a muddy dream - this was outside her power. The artist may have no money and no paints, even, but without hopes and dreams, there can be no artist. She married the artist, just like girls of the same age went for the cadets of the naval academy in the hope that they would become if not admirals, then at least heroic captains, and your teacher always wanted to be just a boatswain, to look after those like you, flippant cabin boys, and her "captain of art" is totally unconcerned about where his ship is headed. SO TELL ME WHAT, THEN, WHAT CAN HE TEACH YOU?"
And really what? To draw flower boxes, or senior officials, or kitty-cats? I felt disgusted, as if someone had shoved a rotten piece of aspic into my mouth, and not with their hand, and but with their boots, smeared with clay. Tears like a small detachment of traitors ran out of the gate on my face - my eyes.
"Here we go, we don’t need your tears," he admonished. "I knew that you would eventually figure this out for yourself, but it might happen too late, and so I decided to intervene."
"So, do you know who they are?" He pointed toward the standing figures.
"Mikel, dear, do not be so," said the Georgian in a soft voice.
"It is necessary, Nico, it is necessary, otherwise the world will lose hundreds of paintings and thousands of sculptures, and he will lose his heart."
"Nico, Nico?" I racked my memory, and from the worn library album the sign "cold beer" fell out, and singing men in Circassian coats with horns filled with wine, the girl with the balloon, strange busty women, a sheep, an Easter cake. "Well, of course! And his fisherman, painted on black oilcloth, I saw it in the Tretyakov Gallery!"
"And you're Uncle Pirosmani?" I turned to the Georgian.
"Well (his hand in an enthusiastic gesture soared like a rocket), and you say he's thick, don't be so hard on him, you let him collect himself. It's night, after all, he'll tell you all about it!"
"And the jungles don't seem familiar to you?" he said just as dryly, but a little softer.
"Probably, yes, for sure, even, but I can't figure it out, I'm sorry."
"Don't talk to me," and he pointed to a strong, broad-faced man, "he's who you need to ask for forgiveness."
"Oh, well, there's no need for forgiveness, don't listen to him, or rather listen, but it's not about me ..."
"This is Henri Rousseau," the voice of Buonarroti rumbled with fireworks of emotions.
"Yikes! Well, of course, I saw it (the jungle) in the Pushkin Museum. The flowers also seemed vaguely familiar, I leafed through their images in some art book, but whose are they?"
"Don't strain yourself, it's her flowers - Kateryna Bilokur."
"Exactly! So this is your "King-ear"?"
"Mine," she said, and smiled good-naturedly.
"Do you know why I asked them, in particular, to come see you with me? What, did your flash of brilliance suddenly flicker out?" again he looked at me in irritation. "None of them studied anywhere, but each has created their own unique, gorgeous, wonderful world! Four hundred and fifty years ago, I probably would have pulled out my own tongue and fried it in a sauce made from my own liver rather than say this, and so my words are not empty sounds, IT`S TRUE! I paved the road of my life through the spacious halls of the Medici, through the papal apartments, through debate and discussion, through recognition and even love, but they? Their way into art was through the back door, through the anger, and the abomination, through the blind wall of incomprehension, through the vile arrogant laughter that tramples the heart! Do you understand?!"
"Well, you don't need to be so harsh," said Bilokur, you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet ..."
"Yes, and you want to tell me that your father did not forbid you to draw, and when he found your little home-made canvases with drawings, he didn`t burn them, and didn`t call you tvaryuga?"
"Yes, that’s true, and he even beat me for it, but that’s no reason to harbor resentments for the rest of my life."
"And you, Henri, everybody laughed about your pictures, even your friends artists, always, until the end of your life."
"Especially when I said that they would hang in the Louvre!" the Frenchman smiled.
"And did not you ask for a certificate from Vollard that you're an artist for the father of your bride?"
"I did not ask if I was an artist, rather, if I was a good artist. By the way, Ambroise and Appolinaire wrote it out. Yes, so they did," and through his mustache, just like the sun making its way through curtains, smile appeared.
"This certificate was given to you at birth, marked 'no statute of limitations' and 'keep forever'; it's pieces are glued to each of your paintings."
"And you, Nico? Until the very end, you would create a painting for a glass of wine and a piece of cake, and everybody thought you were crazy.
"This is truly the way it was," smiled the Georgian, somehow sad and confused.
"And you," he abruptly turned to me, "watch and learn."
"To draw?" I whispered.
"About life, you knucklehead! They waded through a swamp of worldly filth, where instead of frogs and leeches they faced well fed, guffawing, smug mugs. They crossed, conquered icy mountains of personal grief, they feared, wept, suffered, but always knew that they were artists. And they are called primitivists! Mediocrities incapable of even copying my fresco of the Last Judgment, much less create something of their own. Primitive is just hold forth about the form, without even a modicum of understanding about content. Can love really be called primitive? Joy, I ask, is this primitive? Maybe a bright comprehension of the world is primitive? Digging in bare facts and writing dead historical trashy books, this is real primitivism!"
"Have I laid it out for you clearly now?" thundered the genius.
"Yes," I didn`t even whisper, rather very quietly murmured.
"What do you mean YES? What does your YES mean? " he roared.
"I'll try to find my way," I said uncertainly.
"YOU'LL TUH-RY? Sandro, don`t be cheeky, why did I come here today, why did I bring them (quick gesture toward the others) to you?
"I WILL DO IT, I'LL FIND IT, I'LL MAKE IT HAPPEN!" My quiet, soft, hesitant half-whisper suddenly acquired full-bodied form and even some steely notes began to emerge in it. "And after all, Sandro was Botticelli, but I am Alexander, you see, Uncle Buonarroti?"
He looked at me again, and all my confidence dissipated, like freon from a broken refrigerator. He slowly turned to the artists standing behind him: "You have heard, 'Uncle Buonarroti,' well at least he didn’t call me grandmother'!"
"Well, if we wish to be more formal," he continued, "then we have de Francesco de Neri del Miniato del Sera and Lodovico di Leonardo di Buonarroti Simoni. Alright then, don’t strain yourself, you don’t want your eye to start twitching - interfere with your work, and Alexander - that's good, that's right," he said thoughtfully, "although the full name is Alessandro Botticelli, you Alexander, fight for your name, go to battle for it if you have to."
"And if there is something that I don't understand, can I see you again?"
"NO!" the word zipped through my hope like a circular saw!
"If there's something you don't understand, you will be of no interest to us; if you discover something worthwhile, we'll see you then!"
"In order to see these people again I need to come up with a new direction in art?" "Yes, easy-peasy!" Rethink approaches and principles, find new solutions? "No problem!" I, like a nuclear icebreaker, will make my way through art to meet these people!" like a harpoon, these thoughts caught at the reality of the window glass, the wardrobe, the album on the floor, at them, standing next to my bed like people standing on the pier waving goodbye as the ship sets sail watched as an irresistible surging tsunami of sleep swallowed my consciousness.
In the morning, ignoring my lessons, I went straight to art school, found my teacher and told him all about the boatswain from art, and about a lot of mediocrities nurtured by him. When I got to the wife, he shook all over and said she was a holy woman, and that I had better not besmirch her with my foul language.
"YOU!" He tried to choose such words that could be painfully offensive for me. But I clearly said, "Don't you dare offend me or else I'll get my dad."
This nonentity, as I suspected, was also a coward, and with a shaking hand he point at the door and said that he would not tolerate working with me anymore and asked me to vacate the premises. I was looking at this Gollum from art and knew he would never leave that cave with a dozen easels, but that what awaited me was a very long, difficult and wonderful path of light and wind, of big cities and wonderful books, of many thousands of encounters with people, of pictures, of all the things that I like in this life. I'LL BE HAPPY, because I will be EVERYWHERE AND ALWAYS CREATING. The die is cast, and like crossing the Rubicon, I stepped across the threshold of the dive going by the name of art school.
This happened a year before the train called the USSR somehow hauled its bulky structure to the station called Freedom and fortuitously fell apart. Everyone was invited to exit and go their separate ways, but this is just what the vast majority of citizens did not know how to do, or, rather, they had forgotten how over the past seventy years. Everyone was along for the ride of their life - in the literal sense - some in the executive compartment, everyone else in the economy class, peasants and diplomats, the Komsomol leaders who were stoically dedicated to this form of transportation, and the dissidents, hated it with all their heart. Also on this journey were the soldiers who lost their legs for that train in those mountains, where rails were never laid for it, and convicts with the tattoos on their backs: "Call me a son-of-a bitch if I ever forget this locomotive". We traveled sitting and traveled standing. Alcoholics and sober people, men smoking in the vestibule, mothers with children, young Russians in love and Turkmen Aqsaqals wise by the life, Armenians and Chukchi, Moldovans and Karels, Latvians and Buryats and another hundred nations and nationalities were taking this journey, where they got free education, housing, medicine (let's not talk about the quality) and gainful employment. And if you took too long in your quest for work, then, they eveт found you work whether or not you wanted it, or else they locked you up for parasitism.
Your fare for the train ride was your loyalty to the communist cause, and love, both for the socialist homeland and socialist countries everywhere. And this devotion of some was paid for by millions innocent victims who were not committed to communism, and for that their bodies were interred, and "devotion" to the socialist countries was manifested in the tanks on the streets of Bucharest and Prague.
The train made its way down the track, acquiring in the twenties new multi-million cars, i.e., the republics, picking up speed in the thirties, mainly due to the repressed peoples thrown into its` furnace, knocking down the monster of fascism it ran into in the forties, throughout the fifties it made its way through the gleaming hopes of the thaw, quite briskly jumped over the sixties, gradually slowing down and toward the stagnant seventies it was already propelled by inertia without any upkeep or major repairs, without braces and lubrication for the parts, and although, in the early eighties Andropov "tightened all the nuts," this simply wasn't enough to salvage the situation. With the arrival of Gorbachev in the mid-eighties, the restructuring process was launched, but the entire system moving the train was malfunctioning, the wheels of foreign economic policy were barely moving, internal economic processes were chaotic, often uncontrolled and sometimes even under attack, the coupling between the car-republics was practically nonexistent, and in some, the fuse to ethnic separatist explosives had already been lit. The technological situation was also nothing to celebrate, and the restructuring itself was carried out so ridiculously unprofessionally and ineptly that this same "trainy" train, no matter how fast it went, still didn't make it to the station called "commune" and 150 million people scattered across 1/6 of Earth's landmass eagerly striving to build and forge their personal happiness independent of any kind of ideology.
But what was I to make of myself in that structure at that moment, both in relation to others, and internally, with myself.
I must say, that the individual that was shaped out of this was very interesting. In what way? I’ll explain. At that time I lived my entire life in several dimensions, some were more or less compatible, but some were antithetical, and to painlessly incorporate them and cultivate them alongside each other I had to be a tightrope walker, a spy and, at the same time, a regulator. Just how did I work this out?
School. I didn't cut school, but, honestly, I didn't take my studies seriously, either. Knowledge I acquired, or, rather, made sense of, was haphazard, random, piecemeal, and unstructured. The way I managed this was quite simple: the lesson would begin, and I would be immersed in that environment, which was for me a million times more important, and the main thing was that it did not threaten any kind of deliberate destruction of my inner world. Sometimes I would raise the periscope of my consciousness to see where we were for three or four minutes tune in to the teacher's narrative, say, about some relative pronouns, and then, before the recess I'll seek out the answer: who better depicts the peasantry, the Frenchman Millet or my compatriot, Venetsianov. Venetsianov is more straightforward and kindred, he is immediately readable and easy to understand, while Millet is mysterious and shrill as a violin. Back then, of course, I could not come up with such comparisons, but later, with experience, I came to understand that Venetsianov's paintings are like a bright, trap cut emerald, and Millet - a perfectly polished cabochon large stellate sapphire. The next time I pop up is somewhere in the area of the multiplication of polynomials, and I immediately understood I can move on, why waste my time? - and I calmly carry on climbing among the ruins in the paintings by Claude Lorrain.
Now about them. The more I analyzed our meetings, the less likely I was to speak about them with anyone else. For example, the last meeting: however much I thought about it, something was bugging me, something was not as it should be something felt wrong when I thought about it. Again and again I re-read the encyclopedia until enlightenment hit me… WELL OF COURSE! Michelangelo Buonarroti - great Italian sculptor, painter, poet and architect. HE'S ITALIAN! Well, if he speaks Italian, how can I understand him with my C-grade school English? After scrolling again and again through the whole conversation, I finally realized – it was like fireworks, while he speaks, his words are ejected in dense clumps and are as if momentarily suspended in space and then all at once formulated into phrases that I can understand. And then, while these phrases were formulating, and tactile sensations appear. When talking with Michelangelo it was like diving under waves over and over again, and with Van Gogh, it was like rolling over a sheet of fine-grained sandpaper. Do you remember the spories? So if I scroll over them multiple times, I can see (not only with my eyes, but with all my senses), that in some places they are layered. This layering is also manifested in the conversation - every phrase had not only a layer of sensations, but also a layer of color. And with one person it'd be one way, while someone else transmitted to me the full spectrum of these unimaginable sensations: with Michelangelo the phrases, despite his power and force, seemed faded, and I would even say, a dirty blue, while the shy and taciturn Pirosmani's phrases socked you with a cold brightness of green Veronese, and Rousseau conveyed in every sense verbal constructions that was deep brown but not opaque, with sparkles rotating around its axis, they were very sparkling, making them difficult to grasp.
Furthermore, sometimes you could smell it, or even taste it. For example, when Bilokur spoke, I clearly tasted the cold, almost icy jam feijoa, and the tactile and olfactory sensations were as if I was immersed in the pulp of a giant freshly cut aloe leaf, and this is why I can say that they (these sensations) are not associated with their place of birth and life, nor with their paintings. And, interestingly, it was only years later that I could fully identify some of these sensations. Take the above conversation with Kafka: hundreds of times I smell the coffee, good and bad, instant and natural, it varied, and everything was right there, but was a little off, as if it's just about to fall into place, but can't quite fit, some millimeter of a spoiler wrecked the whole thing until the Tunisian Malik explained to me that coffee must be prepared not as a drink, rather it should be introduced as an ornament while listening to music which emits clouds clinging to the mountain peaks. What he prepared really was more than coffee, but besides water, milled coffee beans, cardamom, a pair of pulverized dried heads of allspice buds and a touch of cinnamon on the tip of a narrow knife, he added nothing but drops of his sadness - Middle Eastern unperformed blues - a melody that can only be produced when a good man feels bad. The aroma from this cup of coffee lingered for some time, but just as Franz Kafka`s phrases smelled, and this happened only once, I never again met with Malik, and no matter how much I tried to achieve the same result, although I bought the copper tray, and the Turkish coffee maker, and a variety of coffees, I could never attain that aroma.
And now understand my state then, when inside, this is what is happening, but there is no way to talk about it with anyone, or rather, you can, but even an elementary attempt to describe Giotto to a "dawg" was a bust up against "what trash you talk - let's go have a smoke before the break ends," and that story about them was doomed in the face of "Dude you're pulling my leg with that one!" with constant ribbing for the next two weeks. At the same time things changed, and Giotto clearly no longer fit in. "Uh-huh!", I blurted out and surprised myself, like an old fart, warming his bones on the bench, at the sight of the passing of a young, long-legged and at the same time short-skirted sweetie. In what way did time change? It ceased to flow serenely and was eagerly ticking like a taxi meter. Time ceased to flow serenely and was eagerly ticking like a taxi meter. I remember well the time of this transition - the evening, unlit light, at home only my father and rapidly blinking, like an eye with a nervous tick, the television. There was Moscow, people, tanks and other people who are filmed from the bottom up. Father looks at these flickering images, then says quietly: "The country is no more."
"So what?" I ask cold and sharp.
"Now they'll all cut each other’s throats," says father quietly, like an announcer, relaying the news about a disaster in a voice that leaves you no room for doubt.
"Maybe it'll won’t amount to anything?" I said, uncertainly.
"Maybe, maybe," father softly sighs, and in this sigh was the internal prolonged cry of a man who understands THIS IS IT! NO, IT WILL NOT RUN ITS COURSE! IT CAN BE NO OTHER WAY!
Then the tanks left, and what do you think, I write: "And finally the long awaited freedom has come!" Yeah, right. What came was total suffocating FEAR! It didn't grab you by the throat. It wrapped itself all around the body and gripped you until you breathe out, after which its’ rings squeeze you tighter and you can`t inhale at all. The muscles of this python were the second eternal Russian question. In Russia, there were two before the events described by me: "Who is to blame?" and, of course, "What course shall we take?" There was one answer to both questions: "Who knows?" "The question of "who is to blame" was ingeniously decided through shameless arrogance and impunity: everyone was issued vouchers. A privatization check or voucher is a property coupon issued by an individual for the privatization of state and municipal property, housing, land, as well as the acquisition of shares in investment funds. The nominal value of it was 10,000 rubles, which is equal to the price of a new car, but while everybody was deciding whether it was more profitable to invest it, or wait for it to grow in value, its value dropped down to the equivalent of two bottles of vodka. It is clear that in this total scam about one percent of the population became very rich, and the rest either remained at the same level of material well-being, or became even poorer, because they were thrown from their factories and plants, taken in by the vouchers, in fact EVERYONE fell for the voucher con! And once you took the voucher, this meant that you were complicit along with everybody else, and, therefore, sit silently and do not ask: Who's to blame? Because you're guilty too.
But the question: What course should we take is a lot trickier, because we were given freedom so we could do whatever we wanted, but what this "whatever" was, well, that’s the problem. For millions, I'm not exaggerating, millions of people in Russia "whatever" remained a synonym for nothing, and they, refraining from any activity, from trying to take something up and change it, instead self-destructed in an unconscious limbo of alcohol and drug-induced frenzy while the others moved forward, some in small steps, working, like my mother, sixteen, or even eighteen hours a day, sometimes even seven days a week, while others formed their own gangs and engaged in turf wars for what goods they could get. In search for the answer to the second eternal question Russia, as always, forces its way through extremes and contrasts. What happened in those years can be called cubic surrealism - surrealism in the cube or, if you like, surreal surrealism, because the main idea ofsurrealism is a mixture of dream and reality. And if this is a reality that you won’t see in your worst nightmare? Everything that was going on then can be compared with the actions of a prisoner who, to avoid prison, plays the role of a madman in front of the medical commission by imitating whatever his conception of insanity is, not knowing that in reality, he is, in fact, genuinely mentally ill. There was this obsession stemming from incessant reflections about the "fabulous faraway". First all people dreamed that with everyone on the same team we'll work all together and build, and this will be communism. Then everybody realized that building is useless and decided to wait until sovietdom collapses, and the "fabulous faraway" will come and be near and dear. We kept vigil. It came. The truth is no one really knew how it would look, but on TV every day we got to watch Santa Barbara, and the sweet little thought, like those Snickers candy bars that were now available for sale, about a villa as good as C.C. Capwell's more and more excited the brain of the average Russian. We wanted it all, and lots of it and right now. Everyone from the government to the homeless wondered what should be the scenario for the development of the economy of Russia so that everyone would be okay, not realizing that Russia blew her nose in any script proffered her like a handkerchief and proceeded to go her own way, which, as it turned out, had been perfectly described long before by Samuil Marshak:
A lady dispatched:
And a little puppy named "Fox".
At the station they issued the lady
Four receipts to show
her possessions so all would know:
And a little doggy named Fox.
They load up the cargo.
onto the train-o!
And than away they all go-go:
And little doggy.
But when the bell rang at the Don
They saw that the puppy name Fox was a-gone-gone!
Oh no! What else?..
Let’s take a look:
Oh where, oh where!
Oh where's the doggy-o?
They look and look:
and that’s when they see
No puppy name “Fox” but a real big Doggy-O.
They caught him - and in the luggage,
There, where the bag lay,
Where before there was the puppy named Fox.
They arrive in the city of Klin.
Porter number 15
Puts the luggage on a cart:
And the doggy follows behind.
The dog bays.
And the lady cries:
That's not my dog!"
She threw the suitcase,
Kicked the sofa,
"Give my little dog!"
"Lady, let's go to the station,
We'll check the baggage receipt,
Here's the luggage you gave us:
And little doggy.
During the journey
Could grow some!
People didn`t want to wait for the pedigreed puppy of early capitalism to grow into a thriving "Russian borzoi" of an economy, from some kind deep shadowy unswept gateways they pulled the rough, mad from human blood, mutt with eyes reflecting those same "fabulous faraway". And away we go: castles and villas really did spring up fast, but in designated places where ordinary citizens of Russia were blocked by high fences and massive muscle men which in the English style came to be called Security. Throughout the rest of the world's largest country, what sprang up was only iron stalls, their rusting ugliness resembling zombies fresh from the grave in a third-rate horror film. Everything in our daily life was made foolish and absurd, and the worst of all, nothing was predictable, and therefore everything was scary: the quilted jackets and Brioni suits, kitschy Chinese blouses with lurex and Christian Dior dresses, mesh bags and Louis Vuitton purses, miners banging their helmets demanding unpaid wages for the year, and passing by them fitted out Mercedes 600s, nuclear physicists collecting bottles near ancient mansions repurchased under the offices of the companies owned by their former classmates who barely finished middle school and were expelled for poor progress from PTU.
I can describe what was going on in the streets as follows: the painting Guernica by Picasso. See the bulb in the street lamp? Mentally shatter it. Is it shattered? Good, so now you'll find it easier to comprehend. For now, stay there, in that indifferent body of twilight, densely packed with a billion mangled shadows, and I will continue. There, in Guernica, where you are now, tragedy has already struck, but in those years everyone, and I mean EVERYONE lived in the presentiment of the tragedy, his own tragedy that could strike him or those close to him. Every day the debiliator would display dozens of corpses of young men who had decided to redraw the map of his region. In any Russian city with a factory or industrial enterprise, there are whole avenues in the cemeteries which consist of the tombs of these ordinary land-surveyors who measured the surrounding area not in the streets and kilometers, but in the weight of a bullet and the speed of its flight. If you were engaged in commerce, then competitors could order that you be ‘taken out’, and this was like "business as usual" and even if you're just an ordinary hard worker, and don’t have any connections with business, it may so happen that - some wasted brick with connections with local authorities and politics could kill you with his car at the crossroads and his crime will remain unpunished.
To find yourself at the wrong time in the wrong place and die - it became for the average person a reality, an ordinary fact of life. And all this against the background of that paternal "now they'll all cut each other’s throats" the unbearable anticipation of civil war, the feeling that ALL these are just sparks, and what will happen when it catches fire and explodes? How much bloodshed will ensue? This feeling that is carefully hidden by adults was transferred to us like a vaccine injected to create immunity to the disease called lawlessness. Are you still in Guernica with that lantern that you broke by the force of your thoughts?
That's it, you can go, thank you for staying put there while I told my story. This is not some artful literary device, but an attempt to show you that my story is different from the well-paid journalistic blurb from the paintings hanging in the museum, from the performances staged in the gallery space in THAT it was the life of my country, and I spent many years there, inside the cyclone, so my story is not a summary of pros and cons, not some howling about how awful life was, not a game of "it was good, and it was bad," it's just that now I'm WRITING this text, and then I lived and I wanted somehow to participate, to do something. I must say that at that time, in the question "What to do?" the word "to do" was also a question, contrary to the laws of spelling, punctuation and syntax, but in line with the fact that it was extended over seventeen million square kilometers. Self-employment, except for cooperatives and small household services (shoe repair, photography, key making) was considered illegal in the Soviet Union, and a teenage entrepreneur was classified as a juvenile delinquent. For selling the inside wrapping from a piece of gum you could actually be kicked out of school, and if you sold your sneakers or jeans that are too small for you to wear, well, that could be a criminal case. The following year, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a free trade agreement was signed, and Russia turned into a non-stop flea market: Bounty bars and sauerkraut, records and VHS cassettes deliberately dubbed over in singularly nasal tones (the dubbers used clothespins to achieve the nasal effect to avoid identification by the authorities), motors near loaves of bread in plastic bags, sports coats and Pavloposad woolen shawls, and badly screened, almost watery orange kasha, red caviar, puppies, Hamsters, German beer in cans, tape players blasting out that the night will pass, fear will fade with the light of day comes, and about if there is a step there will be a footprint and if there is darkness there will be light. There wasn’t any kind of system in this, but there was a hope that there wouldn’t be any more empty shelves in the store, or coupons for everything, even for salt, soap and matches, the insane lines and endless rudeness of the shop personnel, who as if handing out alms, would toss a kilo of buckwheat on the counter, and just one per customer. Adults (teachers, parents) didn't have a clue how to respond to all this, which is why they elected to remain silent. The very word "delovoi" in those days had a completely different meaning, untranslatable into any other language. This would seem to be the case because "delovoi" is a literal translation into Russian of a person engaged in business. What kind of business? Well, obviously, it's the business of making money. In those days the category of people who identified with the notion of "commerce" (derived from the word "commersant") were the types who engaged in business, and a "delovoi" was a person engaged in something shady, but always had money. On the pale body of the bloodless economy they scrawled gray schemes for clearing goods through customs, conspired with bandits in all kinds of scams, ensured the sequential transfer of funds between cops, commerces, and mobsters. This was a transitional type in the evolution of the new Russia who was finally extinct by the middle of the year 2000, but was pervasive throughout the country in the 1990s.
My commercial odyssey began with the fact that I and two others: Kostya, a little older than me, and Kisa, who was my age, all pooled together our pocket change and birthday money and bought cleaning supplies, sponges, a couple of buckets and set out to wash cars. We selected an ideal location for our business - the river embankment, near a scattering of cafes favored by commerces, and mobsters, and corrupt cops who liked to wine and dine their women there. When someone came, even in an old Shesterka (the most popular jalopy to emerge from the Soviet car industry) to have some coffee, the phrase "Uncle, want us to wash your car?" It worked like a charm. Firstly, "uncle", this word immediately takes you beyond the mask (Jung`s mask for daily work, which may be selling "irons," or using the irons to "burn" the entrepreneurs, or knocking out a confession from those who "burned" the entrepreneurs and would not pay tribute to the corrupt head cops for their impunity. You are now a big shot, a huge powerful UNCLE, and that elevates you by some 150 points in the eyes of gal, second, your rattletrap is perceived as a car, and not just a bucket of bolts, giving you another 50 points. In such a situation, it was easy to ask for more after washing the car, because having paid, the chevalier will receive another sea of bonuses for his generosity, and even if he was a real tightwad, it's clearly not in his best interests to haggle over the price with the kid, because this would strike a sour note that would spoil all the earlier gestures made to impress the girl. However, single drivers were not known to be generous - one of them completely stiffed us. Business was not just brisk, it was raging. We agreed in advance, who would wash the mats and the interior, who would lug the buckets of water, who would wash the exterior. Next to us was another group of boys like us, washers, and after an hour and a half their head guy approached the eldest of us, Kostya, and asked who we worked for. It wasn't clear what he was getting at, and Kostya said that we worked for whoever would pay us. The dude narrowed his eyes kind of ominously, returned to his pals, they collected their buckets and set off somewhere. The evening was leisurely stepping into the waterfront, caressing the supple skin of the river with its summer breeze and sifting patches of sunlight through the trees. Millions of things and events could be put into one word leisurely, and there would still be a little space left. All of this was destroyed by the Devyatka bearing down on us. Braking a meter away from us, four muscleheads disembarked from it, slugged Kostya under the ribs and dunked him in a bucket of dirty water, executed a quick search, took away our money and, kicking us in the backside, herded us into the river. Then one pulled a sharpened sapper shovel out of the car. "If I see any of you around here, this is what…" and he made a sweeping motion with it, illustrating with his movement the unpainted pendulum of the soft clock by Salvadore Dali, "I will stick this in your head." You know, I didn't believe him. This bony single-celled creature wasn't capable of carrying out his threat exactly, because with his muscle he couldn’t stick a shovel in the skull, just break off a piece of it with a hodgepodge of what was once called hair and brains. "If anyone sets foot on this riverbank," continued to declare the cruel shaved head, "I will chop off (and he briefly shook the shovel) their leg, go now - shove off!" And the cutting edge of the sapper shovel slowly began to careen in our direction. I swam, mentally thanking Valerik, a friend from school, who a couple of years before that had given me a crash course in swimming, nearly drowning me, abandoning me, floundering, in a wild dog-paddle, desperately cursing and calling out for help as he floated away on a catamaran. Buckets flew over my head and splashed into the water a few feet from me. It should be noted that the experience was not completely unfortunate, because I had part of the earned money, and they didn't search Kisa and me, so although we didn't make a profit, we at least recouped our investment.
My next, shall we say, "business endeavor" was deployed on the ground ... Bosch. A southern summer. Beating in hysterics and throwing its rays on the ground, the sun was sweltering from its own sultriness. A busy street leading to the train station of the south city, gypsies in their countless disheveled skirts and gold adornments, selling cigarettes and chewing gum, hurrying summer residents with buckets overflowing with apricots covered with gauze, a tent with tinkly trinkets, plastic digital watches, electronic games (Tetris ) and tiny shiny disk-shaped batteries, which made all this electronic crapola run, and the anemically-sparsely-toothed beggar Igoresha incessantly plying the throng of people, with his out-stretched hands devoid of muscles, like the sticks on a scarecrow (he had his own way of requesting money: instead of "help, good people" he would walk up to a person, look into his eyes, as if evaluating whether he was worthy of his secrets, then he would speak conspiratorially: "Give me something for a piroshki to eat, I'll buy it now, eat it up, get stronger and go to Cheryomushki to fight the mafia." It should be noted that fake pregnant women, elderly women, persons with disabilities proliferated in those days, and people gave them poor alms, but no one hesitated to give money for Igoresha "fighting the mafia", and in this human brew was a living reproduction of the Bosch painting The Conjurer. The only thing different were the clothes. The glasses, the ball, and most importantly, those faces were the same, and even the brick fence near which the shell game artist was running his usual performance by generating excitement with ostensibly casual viewers who were actually working with him in the con, an underdog who had already lost all his money and was twisting his ring around in a not so earnest attempt to remove it from his finger, and the fence was also overgrown with grass.
Half a millennium had passed, progress, nuclear icebreakers, Gagarin in space, and yet nothing had changed? How's that? The question was caulked in the heart, like caramel in a hole in a tooth, which because of the constant presence of the foreign mass begins to constantly, exhaustingly, feebly, dully ache. When I saw the very same thimblerigger and three of his comrades in the gazebo outside my house (they rented an apartment in the next entryway), I immediately realized that this was a chance to be on the other side of the picture, to understand all the mechanisms, and hence the logic of greed. After all, we no longer had mills like back then, and instead of horses we had locomotives, instead of plows - harvesters, and so here was something where the mechanics were exactly the same despite the passage of time. Nothing had changed because, well, people were still the same.
I need to say that my first effort to join the group was with a pack of smokes (everyone took a cigarette) and recommendations: "I'm Sasha, I live next door," was met with skepticism, and on my request teach me how to shuffle shells followed was a prompt response: "Pioneers-loafers sold all over the country, now go to school to sharpen pencils and teach letter A."
No, I had to act boldly and with a flourish. I used all the money on me to buy, or rather, asked the local bulbous-nosed, bulldogish, with a slight lisp, crouping, one-legged, alcoholic Gesha to buy eight (and one for Gesha for as a tip) bottles of Zhiguli beer, and vobla dried in advance on the balcony, and brought them into the gazebo. The beer settled on the southern evening with a warm silky texture like the oil paints in a Signac painting. And as the top dog, Fang, just looked on and frowned, then Bidon, Fanya and Sipa popped open the bottles on the edge of the wooden table and poured into themselves each a half liter of golden, pleasantly fizzy Zhiguli beer.
"I see you're quick-witted," began Fang.
"And we need a lookout," interjected Bidon, and immediately lost his bravado under a heavy look from Fang.
"As I understand it, you want to learn how to work the ‘lathe’?"
"No, I want to learn how to thimblerig," I blurted out and was greeted by a cannonade of laughter.
"So that's it," he set up a piece of plywood with three little cups, "we call this the lathe, okay?"
Now I got it, "working the lathe" was the same thing as thimblerigging.
"Alright, come on, are you on vacation now? You have to be on ’pahy’ and I will teach you the craft. I won't pay you in cash, but you get a reward for each cop, okay?"
"Well, do you know what to be on pahy is?"
"Um, it's like to stay on watch."
"No, keep an eye out and stay on watch means stand in one place and watch, while being on pahy is like a guard making the rounds."
"And if you see a "pig," get your ass over here ASAP, signal us," butted in the seething with impatience Bidon.
Well, what's there to it? Walk around, if the police show up, then run back to let them know, nothing to it; we shook hands, and began my lessons in the subtleties of thimble and ball techniques. The process itself, however, differed from in Bosch's day.
With him, the conjurer manipulated the ball to capture the attention of the dupe, and as he looks on, his accomplice steals the purse. A young man, a girl and a boy are ready to distract the dupe if he loses interest in the magician and the ostensibly poor-sighted man in glasses doesn't have time to cut the belt with the purse.
The same "cast of characters" is in today's thimbles, but the principle is different. The organizational part of the "enterprise" is as follows: the "bottom" is the guy who manipulates the thimbles, and the "uppers" are the fake players and fake happy winners. If teams have an agreement with the local police, then they have a couple of "bulls" standing rearguard to soothe the screaming losers demanding their money back with a quick one in the ribs. Fang's team was migratory, and so they didn't have any kind of arrangement with the local cops, and so no bulls. Bidon, Fania and Sipa were the extras, and took turns playing the role of the happy winner and though it was only a couple of times, it was their job to shut the trap of any losers who wanted to cause trouble.
But this was only the external setup. Besides this there was also a detailed game plan:
First, everyone thinks that the most difficult thing is to learn how to manipulate the ball and the thimble. This is NOT the case. The hardest thing is to learn how to lure them in, that is, arrange so that the dupe himself approaches the lathe and then stays there as long as possible. Since then, a decade and a half has flown by, and I have met seasoned Romanian guys throughout Europe from the old town in Stockholm to Montmartre, Paris and I'm amazed at the mediocrity, affectedness, lack of cohesion in their work. I perfectly understand that the description of this episode don`t increase my stature in your eyes, but what happened, happened, and in spite of this what I’m telling you here is the naked truth. Understand, I could not, as an artist, skip this gallery of portraits totally different in form (forehead, nose, mouth, eyes), but absolutely identical at that time but there was one thing that united them all. This thing was Avarice (yes, with a capital letter), only Avarice and nothing but Avarice. Yes, art requires sacrifice, but these people were victims of their own greed, and I "sketched" in my notebook their raw PASSION, which was palpable to cut into slices, poured into bottles and sealed off in aerosol sprays.
So, the street I described a couple of pages back, was where the ‘bottom,’ Fang, leisurely laid out the lathe and started the polished patter under the measures clack of the little ball.
"Step on up, don't be shy! I'm Karim-Malim (and this with his own special Ryazan face and Volga bass!), but they call me Sim-Salabim. And here’s my scene. Check it out, see what’s about. Try your skill, get a thrill," (and here they come, slowly strolling up, as if seeing the lathe for the first time, talking merrily with each other, Bidon and Sipa). "I need cash before I dash, watch me now, don’t ask how," (he speeds up his movements with the ball), "we're sure to win." From the other side, Fanya was drawing near and a few genuine (not plants) interested summer residents.
Fang continues: "Uchkuduk, three thimbles. Guess where the ball is, annnnnd win the prrrize."
Bidon scratches his tousled head and pretending to be a collective farmer, asks: "Hmmm..er...say there, how much?" (Back then prices jumped around like mad fleas, but one stake was the equivalent of about thirty dollars). Then he makes a show of thinking about it for a bit, and then he shells out the required amount.
"Hey, twist and roll and win it all," continues Fang, and for more effect moving the thimbles around even faster. "Good eyes mean a cash prize."
Bidon points to one of the thimbles, underneath it is the ball, and he gets his outlay plus the same on top of that. Another seven or so people surround the lathe - the crowd is diverse.
"The ball be small, but where, where, there? Hey, good people, come on up, this game is the favorite of the Queen of England!" Now it's Sipa's turn to play, and yes, his turn to win! "We find de ball, move it round, round we go, say you know? Here's de dough!"
А man, reeking of sweat, wearing a vest, with a huge as a plum gold ring on his little finger emerged from the crowd. What luck - a fat-cat rube, meaning you can "play" him multiple times. This is what reusable dupes were called.
Then the long, painstaking work of "cultivating" the rube starts.
"The blitz tournament is going on, come and play, it’s all good fun, choose the ball, and see - you’ve won, and away we go: one, two, three, on a spree, where we go, nobody knows, ball moves round, now you see, looks like you win over me!" The guy wins again, and the surrounding crowd swells to just under thirty.
Try again? Or turn and run? Methinks that we are having fun. Let’s take a chance, don’t look askance, You snooze, you lose, stay in, you win."
This time, the man not only tracks where the ball is, he also catches a glimpse of it under one of the cups which, "conveniently", wasn't firmly set on the plank, and with quick nervous gestures he empties his pockets, tosses down the money, sharply plucks the cup up ... revealing, of course, nothing. "Hey, what's the deal? I know I saw it there just now." "The game's up, fellow, step away now, there's others wanting to try their luck." So where's the ball, you ask? What where? It's in Fang's palm, for which purpose it`s formed from foam or soft rubber, and to ensure that the "client" does not notice a thing, the "uppers" create a ruckus distracting him from the spinner.
But there's another version of this particular con for the especially suspicious. The bottom maneuvers the ball, the plant wins a couple of times, then the bottom names a sum, say, 400 rubles, but it turns out the plant only has 300, he proposes someone else joins in with him to make up the difference. Someone will definitely take the bait, counting on the fact that, firstly, he saw the ball in the cup (at first this con was played with thimbles, that's why it's call "thimblerig," both in Russia and elsewhere, but it's easier to play it with cups and more people can see the action), and, secondly, that dude just shelled out three hundred, so he must be pretty confident and if the two of them together win, then they'll be sure to get the dough. I'm guessing you know how this story ends.
In general, for Fang & Co. all went well, the street was spacious, the cops could be seen a mile away, and I saw so many "specific portraits" that I understood no matter how fortuitous the political and economic situation, no matter how widespread progress, greed will always be, and so, consequently, there will always be profiteers from those infected by avarice.
Then I flew with my parents to stay with relatives in the Urals, and when I returned, right away I dropped in on Fang, but the door was opened by a man with a child who said that they were new tenants. I rushed to where the lathe had been and instead of the familiar golden hands, and, when required, golden feet on the run, the unfamiliar bottom had at least six uppers, and in the distance, hanging loose under the sprawling old tree were four huge citizens, or in common parlance simply "bulls". That's all, "Makhno" Fang's squad had been defeated by a regular army of organized crime. In place of the light, airy fraud of before, what was going on was brazen open robbery to the backdrop of a limp, poorly delivered performance. Any passer-by, not even wanting to play, could unadvisedly pick up one of the cups, and that was it until they were completely cleaned out. But even these shameless thugs were nothing compared with the "bottoms", who called their "lathes" MMM, Hopper Investments, Russian House Selenga, Vlastilina and who fleeced several billion dollars from Russia's not-so-wealthy population in just two years.
But my first real 'gesheft' as Shmulik would say, I made on aquarium fish. But wait, I haven't told you about Shmulik yet - annoying, leaving out Shmulik is like leaving the windows closed on a sunny day in late spring. Something like that can be classified as a crime against personal joy. You couldn’t tell how old he was by looking at him. His face had this ageless quality, somewhat bland, like a poker face, giving no clue as to what he was thinking about whatever was going on, but among friends - what an emotional sandstorm! His speech was peppered with verbal acrobatics and an expressiveness that cannot be described, and so is best rendered verbatim, such as: "Sasha, my 'milky' namesake, what are you doing wasting your time here? You'd best go home and steal a few smmokie treats (the "m" is emphasized here) from your Dad. Bring them here, and if you are caught in such a vile act, so unworthy of a decent young man, say that poor Shmulik, who you notice never complains about anything and who endured all the hardships and sorrows of this life, may they all (fingers circling overhead, apparently meaning the leadership of the country) know personally of what I speak, say that Shmulik has six daze days before the end of month and next month’s pension payment, and he, mind you, very much wants to smoke."
He called me 'milky' namesake because on his passport he was Alexander Mikhailovich.
But they beat you in the face without checking your passport, and from birth he was Schmuel and his dad was called Mendel, although officially he was Mikhail. Such tectonic changes occurred under the pressure of anti-Semitism. "You see," he explained to me, "even now the semantic combination 'Schmuel Mendelevich' is not perceived unambiguously by different people, and in the USSR, it was not even a name, but a call to action. With a name like that, University, studies, what a fantasy! Even if your dad was Keldysh, and your mom Sklodowska-Curie, and he himself came up with a perpetual motion machine that runs on ordinary water. Just the same, they’d find something wrong, or they call its appearance too bourgeois or grudge water for it. And if you manage to make it through University with that name, then do not think that the job you land will correspond with your hard-earned degree. You see, Sasha, there two kinds of laws: written and unwritten, and in the Soviet Union the unwritten, believe me, worked much better than the written. Back then, they, being privileged bastards, could rob and kill with impunity, but a human being named Schmuel Mendelevich could not be designated as the head of a department, because that's almost Mendelevich Mendeleevich, and if you put the derivative names Dmitri Ivanovich next to the word Schmuel in the USSR," this said with a very bitter smile, "no, this cannot be, because this could not ever be."
"Maybe you think, 'Schmuel Mendelevich – that's so funny,' but no, I have an uncle, also Alexander, only Petrovich, and his real name is Schrul and patronymic Pinkassovich, in Israel he would have been born a respected person, but here he's not a man, just an ongoing joke."
His doltishness, and his look, which was continuously scanning the space around you, the way he planted his feet, as if he's wearing iron shoes with lead soles, his switch from Odessa jargon to Russian literary and back within a single sentence - it was like he was imitating the way insects that "mow" under a withered leaf or a blade of grass to avoid being some bird’s prey. But everything changed when he was with a woman.
Schmulik`s women…words are not sufficient. They must be painted: naked and in long cream dresses, bareheaded and in wide summer hats, on canvases and cardboard - I wanted to paint them ... and not just, I simply wanted them, and so did the entire male population of our yard. Quivering all over, the octogenarian grandfather Zhora wrenched his neck with his Adam's apple, running back and forth like a mutt at the fair, and wailed, "Well, where does he catch them, where is it he hob-nobs with that kind of gal?" When Schmulik appeared in the yard with a woman, he created the impression that some high-spirited pirate clipper had boarded a luxury royal yacht, which, floating past us, elegantly shook their hips from side to side.
Shmulik then becomes Alexander Mikhailovich - no more leaden feet on the ground, instead of a long, worn, leather vest and wide, short pants a pressed suit, and he did not fill the lady's ear with everyday work talk or manly bragging, rather, his words flittered around her ears like a bird flits around its nest, dropping in there all sorts of compliments and pleasantries. And they, the impregnable Vallettas, Trakais, Izmails of flesh and blood willingly opened the gates of their hearts... But what am I going on about Schmulik for? Schmulik is as Schmulik does and that’s that.
So, at that time I became interested in breeding aquarium fish. My dad picked up a book, and built me one aquarium - glass and putty, then another four to accommodate the multiplying fish. Guppies were prolific in their reproduction, the swordtails were like rabbits all year round, and there were also egg-laying zebrafish, gouramis, neon fish and many other "aquarium citizens." If bred like cockroaches, the tiny snails destroyed by betas left in the aquarium, that after several days of hunger devoured them, goggled their eyes and obviously cussing me out in their silent fish language, and I absolutely didn`t know what to do with the grown fry.
Schmulik had a small aquarium which was quickly populated by my own aquatic "offspring." When I complained about the surplus, he uttered only a single, but weighty word: "SELL!"
"Sell? How "sell"!? Who to?" I asked in surprise.
"Sasha, well, you're an artist or a putz? To people," (the way he drawled the word "putz" was as sweet as a gumdrop).
"I'd have to pay for a space at the outdoor market," I mumbled uncertainly.
"Who saying anything about the market?" sleekly continued Schmulik.
"Do you remember when we met at that pet store, those bloodworms of yours (and he said some intricate phrase in Hebrew, because he particularly loathed worms and bloodworms, and I even suspect that he was a little afraid of them, which is why I called it a Shmulikovian wormaphopia) that you bought, and I picked up feed for Avik (when I asked if Avik was derived from ‘avia’, he laughed for a long time and then explained that Avik was from Avigdor. "You see, he's a male canary, a boy. And what name is good for him? - I could not, of course, call him Fido".)
"Yes, I remember."
"And did you see there a table for buyers?"
"Well, just use that table and start selling fish."
"Yeah, but the salesladies will boot me out of there, and where will I put the fish?"
"Sasha, you seem like a normal guy, but behave like a schlemazel, and your tushie takes precedence over other convolutions. Before tying yourself in knots, stop and think."
"You said they don't have normal species at the pet store and they don't look after the fish, right?"
"Of course I said that."
It really does hurt to look at these scaly invalids with gnawed, tattered fins, mangled eyes, all sorts of sores. The normal specimens for sale in the aquarium section of the market cost about four times as much."
"So yours are more beautiful and healthier?"
"Sure they are! Yes! Why do you ask a hundred times the same thing?
"Sasha, I see how you are angry?
Sasha, when you get angry, you make me profoundly amused, and you don't need to do that to me, because Schmulik will die of laughter and then he will start appearing in your dreams and sneezing in your ear 74 times per night, and your life will become an endless sleepless thought about why you have martyred poor unfortunate Schmulik. I see you have calmed down, young man, then pick up a tuning fork and attune your ears…" And in the space of five minutes, he outlined a detailed and very sensible plan, worthy of Adam Smith. The essence of it was as follows: I went to the pet shop with two three-liter glass jars filled with my fish, and exhibited them at the above table. Two minutes later, all the buyers at flocked to my table, and even though the price was twice the normal for that store, they didn't mind. And also of interest: I said that I didn't have packets or distilled water, and everyone in turn approached the saleswomen, bought from them a couple of branchial gimps, and then in these packets they released my beauties which I had first fed infursoria, and then bloodworms. The genius of this economic progress was the fact that even though the shop ladies looked at me like a soldier at Pediculus humanus, they understood the obvious advantages of having me there, and put up with me. In one month I had sold all of my fish, leaving only guppies, swordtails and mollies I acquired some good males and females, Dad made another five nurseries - small aquariums for fry (I once more have to take my hat off to my parents for their patience!), and within a year I had generated earning equivalent to approximately 2/3 of my mother's salary. Then the shop went out of business, and the fish were useless in terms of my art, and I met a man who really had always wanted to breed fish for a living. He bought all my aquariums for a good price on the condition that I would serve as a consultant as needed, and so I exited the business "in the green," so to speak, with a solid profit.
My forays into entrepreneurial activities were not out of the desire for money, which is not to say that ready cash on hand isn't nice, of course, but I sought to increase my understanding of the world through surplus value. I did not ascribe any value to my labor, and the fact that I could convert a hundred rubles into two hundred was in itself as incredibly mysterious as the above-mentioned guppies. You release one barely moving tiny little fish into an empty aquarium, and a few hours later it's all teeming with fry - a living net profit.
The next economic topic turned up purely by chance. I heard a conversation in which a neighbor, a seller at the clothing bazaar, was cursing the high prices in the cafes and from peddlers, which, besides scanty sandwiches smothered in cellophane with dystrophic pieces of sausage, had nothing to offer, and even "regular" piroshok was nowhere to be found. I decided to fix this economic blunder, and every Saturday and Sunday, my mother began to go early to work so that she could bake me two buckets of piroshki (about a hundred in total). Then I went to the market, where this "anti-sandwich" friend of Mom's plied her trade. The work was simple: I walked up and down the rows yelling as loud as possible without breaking rhythm: "Piiiiiiirozhkiiiiiii," - and then quickly - "tasty, potato or cabbage" - and then again in a long drawl, "hoottt and cheaapp." Both sellers and people who came for the bargains on clothing. The profit was hundred percent: Each pirozhok cost me five rubles, I sold them for ten rubles a piece, and since I was a still in school the trip on the tram was free. My business activities as a caterer ended as suddenly as it had begun. One day, after I had sold out and was done, I was stopped (crud, they waited until I had all my proceeds from sales) one could say by the constabulary, but I refuse - the filthy pigs stopped me, took me to the station, fed me some line of bull about protocol, and took ALL my money to the last penny, and so the saying "even a cop won't take you last penny" does NOT apply to Russia! I asked him to let me keep at least half to pay for what I owed for them, but the greedy, should-have-been-beaten-good-in-the-toilet-back-in-school-for-being-the-teacher's-snitch bastard said that the money was the material evidence of my - get this - illegal activities. Of course, after this kind of lawlessness from the "keepers of the peace," there was no reason for me to go back to the market, although I have to admit that the time I spent there made for some decent working material, especially for my future literary work. The 1990s gave rise to a plethora of types that were similar to each other in their behavior and who subsequently completely disappeared as a species. I already told you about the "delovoi," and there were also the "schnooks. Being a schnook is not a profession, it is an altered state of consciousness that takes over a person. It is manifested as follows: a man comes to work, and he gets the wages that have not been paid for several months. He picks up some treats and a bottle on the way home by way of marking the occasion, and then hurries to share the good news with his loved ones. But his family is already aware that the money was paid by the factory, so he doesn't walk into his house so much as he arrives at the headquarters of military operations, where he is informed that there's ongoing inflation, so the money he's just received will be spent on such and such purchased products, and then "X" amount of the money will go to utilities, and paying back that loan from Aunt Nura, and whatever is left after that is what he'll take into town tomorrow to buy clothes for the kids at the clothing bazaar. The next day, the children, swathed in boots and coat as if ready to be sent to Khanty-Mansiysk, sweat in the corridor, and the poor henpecked man listens to the instructions from his wife and mother-in-law: "The money, look, I've wrapped it in a rag, and pinned it to your skivvies. First, choose what to buy, then take it out and pay." "Don't go in there waving the money around," continues the mother-in-law, "keep clear of the shadowy type, and nod and smile at the police - you've got children with you, they shouldn't bother you." "And whatever you do, don't lose the money!" in a long-drawn howl the voices of his wife and mother-in-law merged together. And so there he goes, yesterday - a normal man, respected at work, now like a prime example of the henpecked husband, he's constantly tugging at his pants and glancing down inside, and when he can't take a look, then he nervously gropes his groin, making sure the funds are still in place, and he's always looking around checking to see if there are any bandits, or any cops, who, per the instructions of his mother-in-law, he had to smile at.
And, yes, there was still another topic, this from the realm of the shadow economy - the unloading of the wagons. The area where I lived was less fortunate, and so it was easy to hook up with bad people. Acting quickly and brazenly, in teams of two, one climbed on the wagon with a magnet, and everything that he could get he threw down. The teammate - stashed these nonferrous metallic find in the nearest clumps of bushes. Three or four teams went over all the entire line of train cars in one raid and then this was all loaded onto the ride of a certain shady dude named Plumpy who ran this entire operation, and then it was delivered to the metal recyclers where the guy who received the stolen goods got his share, and then the next day everyone else got their cut, too. There was only one thing wrong with this easy-peasy venture, and that was the police, who were extremely harsh in their action: they actually incarcerated one teenager, and three received suspended sentences. It was impossible to beat the rap, if they managed to catch somebody, they immediately took him to a police station, drew up a report, and brought a criminal case. At the police station, they beat Vita Maral so hard in the head that his parents had to keep the fifteen-year-old at home, and he would clamber down the grapevines from the fourth so that he could swap chewing gum comics with the school kids, at night on the ledge near the entrance he exchanged "meows" with the spring cats. The reason for such brutality by the police, I suspect, was that the nonferrous metal was delivered from one and the same company, and there was a reward for each "head" of the marauders. The following steps were taken to guard against being caught in the act: we would sit in the bushes where we stashed the metal and we'd wait until a long train was approaching and when we were even with the cars we'd run out and get whatever we could, and then when the train had completely passed we'd disperse and take off in different directions. Even if the cops saw some movement out there, they couldn't do anything, and it wasn't a realistic proposition to go looking for the stash at night, and, anyway, they didn't want to find the stash - what for? Throw the metal back? But this time, the raid came not from the direction of the station, but from the railway embankment. There was nowhere to retreat, and lucky for me - I was atop the wagon (they grabbed the two down below), and jumped off, crawled to where the short freight train began its movement, and then made a run for it.
"Run into trouble, asshole?" the voice was confident and sharp. Each sentence, like acutely sharp piano wire of a light cherry color, red-hot inside, sped past me, hissing and whistling, as if they had to penetrating through something. The incredulous look askance that drilled right through me, the nose that protruded like the toe of an Italian boot in the Ionian Sea, the beard added additional weight to the already powerful, heavy, carved, sloping face. "Listen, you're lagging - step lively now, lest you feel the boot in your can, and end up drooling into a box to your dying day."
Further on, I, barely keeping up with him, rushed, jumping over the rails, leaping and flying from low sheds, and finally, we huddled in one of the piers in the conglomeration of industrial garages.
"Throw a stone at the fence," he blurted out quickly. I lifted a stone and slammed it against the concrete fence and the barking of frenzied dogs echoed back to the pier.
The crunch of boots on gravel quickened, traversing past us, and some fifteen meters beyond where we were gave way to the voice, "He escaped, the little shithead! He`s holing up somewhere here!"
"Okay, let's move on out, that type can jump the fence, you heard how the dogs were set off."
"Well, then let them rip him open from his ass to his throat," guffawed the second, and then the boots cheerfully crunched their way back toward the platform.
"What's with the staring, you don't recognize me?" It seems that inside this middle-aged man was a teenager who spoke in a language I understood. "Benvenuto Cellini." "Well, like, in your portrait you're old, with a long beard and a hat…
"The dickhead in your hat! What are you up to? Where are your pictures?" I was taken aback and asked: "Say what?" "Here’s what! Your hands are not for twisting in the local slammer, and your head isn't for slugging." "What are you talking about?" "I'm talking about the dacha, the dacha. Have you dreamed about a studio?" "Yes!" "Well, get off your duff and do something about it! Go there and get to it! You'll get your head straight, then you will understand who you are, and what you are and where you are headed. Have I laid it out for you clearly now?" This was no longer a question, but something like a veiled threat. The dogs started barking again, and when I turned back toward him, there was nobody there.
To understand: Who are you? What are you? It's easy to contemplate, but hard to do, especially when you’re torn between high ideals of youthfulness and ignoble teenage posturing, and they'll lay into you for both the one and the other. I found myself, like a ring of keys that fell from the table in the anteroom, a skinny, 15-year old, slight, teenager who was exactly a child of my times, like that joke about Rabinovitch, who when asked: Have you ever wavered from the Party line?" replied: "No. I wavered along with the line." I set all the sails of my inner world order toward catching the wind of change on an ocean of futility. The wicked mystery of the ocean is that you can get up to speed of the seeming prosperity because of the countless shifting waves of the vanity of vanities, but you will never reach the shores of the meaning of life. What should I do? Tear down my sails, reshape them into wings and take off! Otherwise, the unrealized ideas, emerging intuition, un-drawn images - all this teeming in my head, like bacteria in a drop of water taken from a tropical river, a magnificent multiplicity of worlds rushing to acquire form, color and content would be lost. Thick sheets of paper with watercolors, cardboard with gouache, and experiments with pastels, a melange of pencil sketches, numerous chaotic notebooks, full sheets of paper covered with sketches and notes and NOTHING completed, nothing defined, and therefore nothing of value. At that time what I needed was rarefied as the air of the stratosphere, namely a stretch of loneliness, a total decoupling from the outside world, with everyone, even with the most beloved and closest of my people, and when the opportunity presented itself, Benvenuto, with his harsh words, like a kick in the groin, ripped my indecision from me like a rotten, decayed tooth being pulled from my mouth.
The possibility had a completely tangible shape in the form of a small country house with a garden just a ten-minute drive from the city. It came up suddenly friends of the family went to live abroad, they rented out their apartment and asked my parents to look after their dacha. Cellini was right, a studio was a slick way out of my current situation, which could be defined as...? To indicate a dearth of ideas they invented the term "artist`s block," which is something like a dead end road, but what about where there's an excess, what do they call that? A bottleneck? A creative bottleneck? My situation at the time would best be described as an overabundance of creativity, a traffic jam of ideas. And so, the studio space was not only a tool for unraveling my urgent creative multiband stream of thoughts, but the entrance into a new sphere of organizing, splicing and processing textual space, tying in the combined molecular structures of paintings from the unstructured atoms of sketches.
Once again, I thank my parents, who were sympathetic to my idea. I got help from my father, who did the following for my convenience: he provided an oilcloth so that that the paint wouldn't drip on the floor, repaired the sofa and bookshelves, and brought a huge folding table from out of the barn so that I could toss brushes and paints around with ease. I told my friends that I was off to stay with relatives in the Urals, and in the three months before the new school year, and by and large for the next few years I would depart for my special creative retreat. A couple of times a week Mom would drop by with food and, as needed, clean clothes. What's going on in my inner world? Can you imagine a Mobius strip? How about a Mobius strip crumpled up by a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown? And a Mobius strip, crumpled up by a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown and then chewed on by the same person, but when he is in the throes of this breakdown? And a Mobius strip, crumpled up by a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown and then chewed on by the same person, but when he is in the throes of this breakdown, and after the man calms down, a carefully straightened, smoothed strip that is braided with an iron chain and attached to the floor of an iron cage, and, after this transformation is complete, it with after the transformation it proliferated, proliferated... in short this metaphor with the strip at least reflects my inner state, but in fact it is absolute rubbish, so I'll give it to you straight, without any metaphors.
I finally started working with oils! How can I describe my feelings? Delight? Yes, I was thrilled, overjoyed, I would even say blown away by being able make this happen. My experiments with oil-based paint in the apartment (stained clothes, clogged toilet) tested the fortitude of even my parents, who were overly loyal to my creative impulses, but here there was the absolute freedom of movement without any fear of grazing something, or accidentally daubing something, or spattering somebody. And better still, here there was no "background". What "background" consists of is mostly sounds, not that these are significant sounds, but they become absolutely unbearable when you are creating art. They, these paltry little gnats, fleas, and little flies and other pests hover beyond the limits of consciousness, but as soon as they become aware of the fact that you are in the act of writing, they seem to mutate, obscuring everything around, eliminating whatever kind of possibility there was to work. The chief specialist on these creatures was Kafka, who managed not only to capture a huge number of them, but even instantly categorize and describe them in the space of one morning.
"I sit in my room - the main headquarters of the apartment noise. I can hear all the doors slam, their roar saves me only by the sound of steps as people run over them, and yet I hear as the oven door is shut. Father opens wide the door of my room and passes through it in his robe, trailing behind him, in the next room they are scraping the ashes from the furnace, Valli asks from the front vestibule, as if shouting through the streets of Paris, if father's hat has already been brushed, the hiss, which should draw attention to me, only fuels a vocal response. The front door opens first with a muffled, hoarse croak morphing into the quick sounds like a girl singing, and closes with a dull courageous thud, that resounds particularly unceremoniously. Father is gone, now begins the more delicate, more dispersed, more hopeless noise, led by the vocalization of two canaries. I have previously thought - and now the canaries again led me to this idea - to crack open the door a little bit, to crawl through it like a snake into the next room, so that, slithering prostrate across the floor, I might beg my sisters and their maid about quietude. (From the Diaries of Franz Kafka (November 1911)
And the thoughts! Thoughts about how I must to do something, whatever in principle had to be done, such as, for example, taking out the trash. And on the one hand you are afraid to break away, because then you won't be able get your rhythm back again, and on the other hand, it is this thought that really mucks with your brain. And there you are, all in a dither: I must stay on track, nope, gotta take out the trash, I won't be able to pick up where I left off if I stop now, take out the trash, no, no, must not stop now, take out the trash, no, no, I can’t take it, take out the trash, no, no, I can’t take it anymore,...AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!
Peace and freedom of action, the brush dips into the palette of color which, as if, is waking up, yawning a little, talking quietly with each other after a nap, moving slowly to the canvas, pulling on itself clothing of shape. The transparency of the watercolor was fine like a material, the velvet of the gouaches was rare, attractive, the pastel "intelligent" soft and calm, but the texture, volume on the canvas, which with every stroke becomes more meaningful and stronger, was possible only with oil. The sensation of a slow taming of the shrew of painting like this was like the story of Filippo Lippi with his wife: first you have to abduct the paint from the tube, do what it takes to ravish it, and then before you know it the paint begins to meet you halfway and even gives birth to your children, your paintings. THINE! Created by thy hand! The morning garden, little green apples, lounging in sunlit clearings like a young millionaire enjoying his jacuzzi; the afternoon garden, the lonely old pear tree next door, and the pear tree's owner - the elderly, always smiling grandmother Sonia standing near the fence, and the fence itself made of slightly mossy pickets.
At the same time there was the constant inner struggle, the doubts, the longing, at times to simply throw it all up and like hightail out of there. I really felt like seeing the guys from my courtyard and Valyunya from Vologda, who I couldn’t call exactly crazy, but who really was impulsive and headstrong. In the evenings I wanted to be roasting potatoes in the abandoned sandbox drinking watered down booze and reminiscing about my lost childhood. To be in the park at a summertime disco, despite the almost 100-percent risk of being beat up by some asshole, and, to be honest, I missed eating dinner with my folks at home. Every day was forged from dozens of internal exhortations, orders, urgings: bitch, where are you off to? - Stop! Dude, don't you dare go past that gate! And again and again: WORK. WORK? WORK! Just like the recovering addict is afraid to go back to his old haunts for fear of falling off the wagon, so I felt a fear of seeing one of the guys, of going back home for just a day or two, lounging around killing time, and, essentially, LOSING!
With literary works, the situation was similar. The amount of material I'd already produced was impressive, but these were assorted scraps, all unrelated, and far from to be finished products. I pieced together some of them, combined others, and rewrote the gist of others, although all the time I could hardly stop myself from giving it all up and watching some television, reading some James Headley Chase, or simply stopping what I was doing to sit still, not do anything at all, not even think. And yet again I had to force myself, first I had to order myself, then persuade myself - to work. WORK!!! And when the whip of internal constraints failed, I had to engage myself in long negotiations: "Sasha, what is this? Are you like one of those dogs of Pavlov's, the bell rings and the reflex kicks in to start drooling, you pick up the T.V. guide, sit your ass on the couch, choose some crapola to watch on the tube so as to kill some time’ and continue let dissolving into the foam of days?" The hardest thing of all was to force myself to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, unbearably white, without a single letter, sign, or even basic idiotic scribble, to sit there and wait. If they had said to me then that it was just the same for Poe and Metterlink, maybe it would've been easier for me, but to be left alone with this "void", this rectangular paper which I had to fill with hundreds of stitched-together-words intertwined into a single narrative thread.
A nervous breakdown, which, you’re probably not surprised, didn't neglect me in this situation, crept up and attacked me suddenly and brutally, like an Indian attack in an old-time Western. But it surprised me with a wealth of sensations. First came the nervous tic itself, which began as a light twitch under my left eye and then moved into a storm across my face. It felt like somewhat had inserted a miniature washboard inside my head, and that it was being rubbed against the interior of my face, and not only up and down, but in a circular kind of motion.
Then came the trembling, like burning kerosene splashed on me, and spreading across my body. A hotbed of this "fire" was in the area of the diaphragm, and this trembling had nothing to with whatever was pulling my face, which seemed to be of a different nature, as it produced completely different rhythmic fluctuations. At first the vomiting brought relief, but when there was nothing left in the stomach, and the spasms kept coming, I began to remind myself of a pillowcase that some hotel maid turns inside out and, preoccupied with her own thoughts, shakes vigorously. All this ended in the total calm of powerlessness. I lay on the ground, spent, with the sun blinking through the leaves of the trees. I closed my eyes. Some time went by, and semi-formed comets of ill-defined images seemed to indicate me that it was a dream, or else a short-term loss of consciousness followed by delirium. I didn't feel good there, it didn't feel right, and I wanted to go back, back to the leaves and earthy smell of slightly decomposing fruit. I opened my eyes. What first I took to be a mountain range with an arched copse of trees turned out to be a massive purposeful human face.
"Don't lie there too long, we have a lot to say to you and we might not have time for it all. Get up, we're waiting for you inside," I felt like I was Ruslan confronted with the head of the giant. Probably Pushkin also saw someone from a similar perspective:
And, frowning, the head yeaned.
The eye opened and sneezed ...
A whirlwind kicked up, shook the steppe,
Shook up dust; from his eyelids, from his mustache,
and from his eyebrows flew a flock of owls;
I slowly got up and inched toward him. Inside the house there was one more man – with a long forelock, big nostrils, eyes exuding a lingering sadness. I recognized him right away.
"Are you...Isaac Levitan?"
During the conversation, he said not a word, but barely discernible changes in his facial expressions directly impacted everything going on around him. His face was like some kind of super-sensitive equalizer, with which he manipulated (whether intentionally or spontaneously I don't know) things that cannot be manipulated, however here the word cannot isn't enough, it's weak and doesn't convey the range of sounds. So, when I asked: "Are you Isaac Levitan?" his expression barely altered, and yet his smile, not arrogant, but rather approving instantly changed the composition of light in the room. Firstly, everything around became unnaturally sharp and chrome-like, not monochrome, but the colors were all seriously toned down. But they, on the contrary, were out of focus, blurry. I thought for a long time about how to describe it with words and, finally came up with something. Imagine a modern blockbuster, where all but the two actors playing the main role, are filmed in 3-D technology, but the actors are being shot with the same cameras and kind of film used to create Casablanca. And I specifically mentioned the main roles, because when I held out my hand and looked at it, it had the same sharp quality as everything around me.
To be honest, I also immediately recognized the second man, but some inner feeling, sort of a capriciousness caused me not to take notice of this gentleman.
"So, guess I don't need an introduction?"
"You're Paul Gauguin," I said through gritted teeth. I really wanted to express my attitude to him, but so as to not offend them. I would like them to stay longer here.
"Thank you for coming, but your (referring to Gauguin) pictures, to be honest don't do it for me!"
"Do you think I'm thrilled by yours?"
Levitan smiled a few more teeth wider, and the monolith of chrome tones in the surrounding shattered into sharp multicolored flashes. It was like the room was contained inside a giant diamond. But the glitter, the sparkle of color on the edges of it, the flashes of light resulting from movement were directly dependent on the ambient light, but in this case, the light source was the smile of Isaac Ilyich, which means that the light source was directly inside the imaginary stone.
"Although there really is something in your fence - your painting, I mean," said Gauguin.
"Your Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is good, too," I said.
"So, listen, what can you compare your activity here with?" he asked, gesturing around.
As I understood him, he was asking about my experimental respite "from the world" in solitary work. "- I think I can compare it with forging a sword, okay? But, I'm not sure I understand what you're asking me."
"Right from the start, you’ve got it wrong. Forging – this is effected by fire and a hammer on a steel blade sharpened by years of experience and pain, and then it is the perfect instrument to cut down enemies in defense of the homeland. It is not, however, suitable for creating something. "You should not be forged, you should be slaked.
"Be slaked? You mean, like lime?" (Awhile back Dad had explained to me the reaction of lime and water with heat on the properties of energy).
"Absolutely right. You see, whatever the amount of heat you allocate, however much you boil or seethe, the end result should be a product that people over the centuries will use to whiten their souls!"
I was astonished. First, his use of literary imagery here was very nice, indeed, but moreover, what he said showed a perfect comprehension of the situation, and was right on target.
"And mind you, this is happening with you in good times, you have something like a studio and enough money to buy good brushes and paint....Isaac for example, was "slaked" when he had nowhere to sleep he was lucky if the guard didn't notice, and he could sleep on the floor of the academy, but if they found him there, then they'd drive him out into the cold. Say, Isaac, how many wintry nights did you wander around Moscow? And as for eating, I won't even go there! A meager existence is the norm of life! And do you know how he painted his pictures? He painted while hiding in the bushes. Do you know why? Do you think he was seeking out an interesting angle? Not at all! He just had no shoes, his clothes were rags, he was afraid of offending the public with his appearance!” – as he spoke his voice began surging (I mean, it really surged, and it isn't a poetic way to put it, but it's an accurate description – the voice, that had been smooth and measured, soared sharply and whipped like a banner in the wind). Levitan's half-smile expressed sadness, and all the warm colors were instantly cut off, and the blue and purple were so compressed that they became almost palpable. The green was growing wider and wider, and it seemed to me, displacing the air from the room, and it was increasingly difficult to breathe, I had to say something, otherwise it would become a dark green emerald, it would overcome all other colors, and I would suffocate. I don't know now how to explain it, but then I JUST KNEW IT!
"And you, as I understand it, were undergoing slaking all your life," I had recently read a biography about him and facts from his life were now swarming inside my head: he left five children in Denmark and his wife, from whose mouth, like from the wicked girl in the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, jumped the utterance: "This art is vile, art is vile," Paris, where he fought every day with himself, struggled to not hang himself in the attic, Breton, Tahiti, where he left the second wife, again – the island, all this I wanted to push into a digestible verbal shell, but I was a little too late.
"Now is not the time to talk about me" (although he was obviously pleased that I was familiar with his biography), "keep listening: here's what you are always saying to yourself: in my life there isn't any of this ‘I just can't.’ You drive away like a mangy mongrel thoughts such as ‘it's not working out’ and that lazy bastard ‘I don't know how,’ and in their place you summon the strong, but cold ‘I must think about work,’ ‘I must work harder,’ ‘I'm not looking in the right place,’ ‘I'm not doing the right thing,’ this is the basis not of your chemical, but of your mental reactions, but there is a thing that can freeze the process, and sometimes halt it completely.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about self-pity! Do not dare, and I mean never, ever, do you hear me, never stoop to self-pity!” the oppressive green as if burst and disappeared, vanished, and it became easier to breath, although it was a bit frosty. "Self pity! It will lead to lapses in work, alcoholism, broken legs, syphilis – right now it's difficult for you to understand this, but nevertheless, that's the way it is. There are other components that affect the end of the process, but this is the most dangerous!"
"What are the other things?!" I cried out. But then the windows, which during our conversation were solidly coated in a silver-frosted shade began to break apart like foil and into the room the light of the setting sun began to break through. Such a furious sunset I did not witness in the mountains or on the coast or in the fields or in the city, not in summer nor the winter – nowhere did the sunset fight for its rightful place as forcefully as it did in my studio. It burst into the room like a gladiator striving for victory with its blazing pink hues. This blitzkrieg of a sunset triumphed, and in meager crumbs of seconds there were no extraneous colors, people, sensations were already gone, everything became real. Calm. Ordinary. It (the sunset) carelessly scattered around my little studio its reddish light hues, like it was tossing clothes about his own bedroom. I collapsed on the bed. I was overwhelmed by it all. Sleep. Don't analyze it. To sleep – to cease all thought. Sleep. Get to sleep. Tomorrow. Leave everything else for tomorrow. But I still had to make it to tomorrow... Meanwhile, there he was in the room – another. There were no changes "in the picture", there was still the same patchwork dress of the sunset, it's vestiges were also careless, although more muted. Soon the mistress of the house, Night, should arrive. Do you know what for? In order to wash these garments of light in her darkness, so that in the morning they again glistened with a clean glow and dawn, like a child in a huge towel wrapped in the freshness of color, carefully peeking over the curtains. He will play for a long time, hiding behind them, then cautiously splash his bare feet to your bed, leaving blotches of bright light traces on the floor and taking his time, will tickle your eyelids until after tossing and turning for a long while, you have just managed to crack your eyes open and behold this luminous beauty and instead of the ordinary, "it's time to work," or "got to get the kids off to the nursery," or, or, or-or, or, or ... in short, instead of all this "or" you produce a completely generous smile and say: THANK YOU GOD!
And so, there were no color changes in the following conversation, but the words, their reflection, materialization, if you like, were much more complicated and not like a simple dialog. Firstly, they were all brown but of completely different hues – leather from a suitcase, the belly of a bay horse, a clay bowl, rusks, a monkey’s muzzle, 12-year-old whiskey, an old brick, a cup of good coffee with milk, chicken feathers, cinnamon sticks, the neighbor's very fast dachshund, a wet haystack, an acorn, a wilted tea rose, oatmeal cookies, a piece of Baltic amber found after a storm, the hair of that winsome brunette who… and although it doesn’t matter, crystalline sugar, which is so annoying to everybody when you roll it around in your mouth and it clicks against your teeth, an old, familiar wooden stirrer encased in chestnut honey, that twine they used when you were a kid to wrap paper bags filled with pastries, a Siberian weasel tail , or, rather, the hairs from it in my thin paintbrush, the dry leaves of a horse chestnut, an Atlas moth framed under glass, an Easter egg colored in onion skin, but at the same time they clearly lived their own individual life like a cat who comes and goes as it pleases, they became elongated and would disappear, arranged themselves into abstract shapes or collapsed into themselves like a three-dimensional Tetris, then they would dissolve almost to the point of fading away, or, at the other extreme they would solidify until they acquired a distinct texture, or they would become plastic, and even friable, so they start crumbling apart until they dissolved, or else they became stiffer, and developed edges..
"Lie there, don’t get up."
The handsome, masculine face that would look splendid in any photo or would be right at home on the silver screen, was one that I, frankly speaking, simply did not recognize.
"Don’t worry about it, it’s not important. I am Remarque. Tell me, are you serious about writing?"
"You want to write books?"
"And you want them to be good books?"
This communication style was beginning to irritate me, but I quickly extinguished that feeling like a fire starting from a sparking wall outlet. I was already a little used to how, no matter what the strange twists and turns of the conversations with them, nothing was just plain and simple, and this was the lead-in to another more important part of our dialogue.
"I’m asking you because, after all, you see them, right? You’re not imagining it, but you actually see them, and even feel, smell, and touch them, right?"
"When that happens, I try to just write."
"Do you want me to tell you a secret?"
As a writer Remarque is, of course, brilliant, but this question was really stupid: here before you is Erich Maria Remarque, the writer whose books, like generals on parade, stand on any bookshelf, and he is asking me if I wanted him to share a confidence with me. How do you think I responded?
He was silent for awhile, and then he abruptly launched into speech. "They will start to come to you, your yet unwritten, or rather, your still unfinished heroes."
"No, differently, but just the same, they will come, THEY WILL DEFINITELY COME, and do you know why?"
"I do," (At that time I really did think that I knew why). "To share their secrets, their lives, ..their wisdom, " I responded, gasping, "to...to"
"NO!" Like a twisted wet towel slapped against my back, his answer coursed through my brain. They‘ll come to you to ask you TO KEEP THEM ALIVE, to ask for happiness, their happiness, though so small, but THEIR own happiness, they’ll ask you for themselves, their loved ones, they’ll request that their enemies be punished, then they’ll generally go too far and start to tell you how you have to go about it and what you have to stop doing, what is true and what is false. Andrei Tarkovsky once said that the actors are everything, and in your novel it is you that is everything! Did you ever want to be a ruler?"
"It doesn’t matter, the president of the United State, the governor of Barbados, the czar of Russia, the chancellor of Germany?"
"When? Now, or in the past?"
"Whatever epoch that suits your fancy, even if it’s in the future!"
"I knew it! That’s nothing but nonsense! Those who rule have command over people, but you rule over everything from one grass pedicel to an elephant wrapped in cling film and colored pink, because it is already there, it has already been written, and thus CREATED, CREATED BY YOU, and it is up to you and you alone to let him out wherever you want. But animals and plants and even entire galaxies – these are just half of it. It’s when people start to appear in the novel, and they’ll appear all at once, that’s when…., but, know this, you’ll start to feel it soon enough. Do you remember those wondrous animals and the house in Moscow? Soon you will stop observing and you will start to be among them, to travel with them and, most importantly, to suffer along with their deathtouched (that's my word, he uttered my word, a terrible word, I wrote it down on a separate page so that it would not come into contact with the surrounding bodies of letters). And then he, having completed his thought, briefly paused.
"Every real writer, as does a doctor," he began to speak out of nowhere, but very vigorously, as if he was preparing to wade into cold water, "has their own cemetery, only the cemeteries of doctors are filled with the patients that could not be saved, while the cemeteries of writers are populated by the books that – were not written, and the better the book is turning out, then the more difficult, the more complicated it will be to move forward; the lines, like wounded soldiers, will climb over the parapet of time, and parting with each character that you’ve created, rips through your heart like a plow, which moves not through fertile, black soil, but the dry indifference and unshed tears of salt marshes. And when you bite the bullet and make the hard choices and type away on the keyboard, like a machine gun, who do you think those bullets of pain hit first and foremost? THEY LAND ON YOU! Every day, you see, EVERY DAY you will have to choose: is it he, your by now close, incubated and nurtured inside-of you and then born out of your creativity, written and rectified character, or is it a pile of sheets with scribbles that are then transformed into the rectangular of a printed book?"
"That are going to be read by people, GENUINE living people!" I cried out.
His smile was bitter, but essential, like medicine, medicine for all sorts of hardening and numbness in my heart.
"Understand that if these are BOOKS you’re going to write, then your characters are not going to be playthings! And so what have you decided?"
"I’m going to write, yes," I shouted, "I’m going to write, no matter what."
"I should have told you in advance, but if you want to know the truth, I expected just such an answer from you."
"I’m going to, yes I am, I’m going to, hear me now, I shall without fail write."
"Of course you shall, there’s no escaping it,” and he gave me another dose of that bitter smile, "you cannot hide from yourself!" And he plunged into the brown, viscous flow, and I into a deep and dreamless sleep.